“All politics is local,” the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill was famous for saying.
One can only imagine how the former congressman might have amended that statement had he lived to see a Virginia-based nonprofit organization use its website to stoke hysteria about what is happening in classrooms in Marblehead and across the country.
To review, Parents Defending Education shined a spotlight on the $10,000 that the Marblehead Public Schools had paid Henry Turner, the principal of Newton North High School and a Marblehead resident, to lead several diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) workshops for Marblehead teachers, students and parents.
In doing so, PDE was following a familiar playbook. Its website features a nationwide catalog of what it calls “incident reports” in pursuit of its work to “reclaim our schools from activists pursuing harmful agendas” and fight “indoctrination” in the classroom.
Turner had already been on the group’s radar as one of those “activists.” Around the same time PDE posted the Marblehead invoices, the website was also calling attention to Newton North’s ToBeGlad (Transgender Bisexual Lesbian Awareness) Day. It had previously published posts about Turner’s consulting work in Plymouth, and an email he had sent to the Newton North community after the acquittal of Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooter Kyle Rittenhouse.
As it turns out, three local women had used the public records law to request Turner’s Marblehead invoices, and at least one then passed them along to PDE.
We cannot fault residents for filing public records requests — or taking advice from outside sources on how to do so. Sometimes the public records law is “weaponized” and deployed to harass officials — Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer once told the Current about how requests had “overwhelmed the system” in Framingham. But generally speaking, the public records law is there for everyone, and people should know how to use it.
But we can now see what happens when the fruits of a public records request are fed back into an organization like PDE. You get posts designed to manufacture outrage — both by what they include and what they omit.
For example, in bolded text, PDE reminds readers that Turner is the same person who, in Plymouth, trained with the objective to “describe whiteness and the role the culture plays to uphold systemic racism.”
It then offers up a post Turner made to his blog in February, praising the New York Times’ “1619 Project” — a political flashpoint on the right — even though the connection to Turner’s presentations in Marblehead is never made clear.
In actuality, one of the things Turner talked about with Marblehead faculty, families and students was his daughter’s affirming experience in a classroom activity at the Gerry School as the rare student with brown skin.
The content of Turner’s presentations is not the only context missing from PDE’s post. Not only is the sum of $10,000 presented as self-evidently outrageous, but not mentioned is that the Marblehead presentations were funded by a METCO grant, the use of which was almost certainly restricted to fostering the same type of support for students who come to Marblehead by bus from Boston that Turner’s own daughter felt.
Said another way, this expenditure did not come at the expense of addressing some other pressing need in the district.
When other outlets have asked, PDE has also been coy about its funding sources. Suspicion is widespread that dark money is behind such nominal “grassroots” efforts, and the organization has done little to dispel such notions. Tax records indicate that it received at least one significant gift of $250,000 from the private foundation of a self-described “free enterprise conservative,” Daniel C. Searle, in 2021.
The Boston Globe recently featured on its front page the cautionary tale of Barrington, Illinois, a “leafy, affluent village outside Chicago,” which is still cleaning up the wreckage from a pitched, nationalized school board race that has left residents with serious doubts as to whether they can ever “heal the divide” in their community.
As we embark on what is likely to be a hotly contested campaign for seats on our town school board, we would hate to think that such fissures are inevitable.
The PDE encounter should remind us that resisting the urge to bring unhelpful voices into important community conversations can only help to spare us that fate.
The Current Editorial Board
The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.