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Free to Learn Coalition: The outside group trying to influence Central Indiana School Board elections

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Posted at 7:07 AM, Oct 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-28 21:16:48-04

INDIANA — On Wednesday, WRTV reported Free to Learn Coalition, a national group, created a deceptive and unofficial school board candidate website for Carmel Clay's School Board Candidates.

The parent who led the effort on getting the word out about the outside group creating the website is Nicki McNally. She formed the political action committee Support CCS which claims it is a non-partisan group that wants the best for Carmel Clay Schools.

"I can't think of any good reason an outside national group would be trying to influence our local school board elections," McNally said in an interview on Wednesday.

Since our original story was published, we've received several messages telling us similar sites have been created for other districts — including Hamilton Southeastern, Fishers, and Center Grove — by the same group.

WHAT IS FREE TO LEARN COALITION?

Free to Learn Coalition bills itself as a nonpartisan organization established to support parents, caregivers, and community organizations in their advocacy for quality K-12 education. However, that stance can be called into question by their hand in creating illegitimate school board candidate sites that clearly point out, sometimes incorrectly, partisan facts about school board candidates.

A CBS News Investigation found Free to Learn Action, the 501(c)(4 ) of Free to Learn Coalition, was behind a $1 million ad campaign in the 2021 Virginia Governor Race. Backed by conservatives, the ad targeted Democrat Terry McCauliffe on education and two alleged sexual assault incidents. Republican Glen Youngkin won the race.

Free to Learn Action is backed by the right-wing Judicial Crisis Network which was formally called the Concord Fund.

RELATED | Conservative ‘dark money’ network rebranded to push voting restrictions before 2020 election

WHO LEADS FREE TO LEARN COALITION?

Alleigh Marré is listed as the president of Free to Learn Coalition. Her bio says she has served in a "variety of other communications roles to include her work for two United States Senators, a Governor, and two national political committees." Her Linkedin shows she's worked for Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee.

Alleigh Marré
Alleigh Marré is president of Free to Learn Coalition
Résumé screenshots of Alleigh Marré
Screenshots showing a portion of Alleigh Marré's work experience.

WHAT DO THE FREE TO LEARN WEBSITES LOOK LIKE?

All the unofficial websites follow the same format as you see below. They swap out school district names and candidates for each separate website.

Screenshot from deceptive website

Below is what Carmel Clay's website actually looks like.

Carmel Clay Official Website

WHAT'S THE REACTION FROM SCHOOL DISTRICTS AND SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES?

Carmel Clay Schools sent the following statement regarding the fake school board candidate website.

Just as we teach our students, it’s important to research sources to ensure accurate, reliable and unbiased information. The website being promoted to Carmel residents with this URL is hosted by a national 501c4 Advocacy Group and not Carmel Clay Schools. Anyone looking for information about the Carmel Clay School Board and its current members should visit the official CCS webpage.

Emily Bauer, Director of Community Relations

Several of the Carmel Clay School Board Candidates sent statements regarding the website. Those are below.

I learned about the website you mentioned while monitoring the analytics for my campaign website. The website is deceptive because registering as a Republican or Democrat is not part of the voter registration process in Indiana. All candidates for the school board appear on our ballot as non-partisan. I am not overly concerned about the website because Carmel citizens have a long history of voting for the best candidate. I would encourage voters to view the Conversations with Candidates videos produced by the non-partisan Carmel Education Foundation, Carmel Clay Public Library Foundation, and the OneZone Chamber of Commerce.
Sheldon Barnes - District 1 Candidate
I am very disappointed that an out of state political action party is attempting to influence our school board election. This election should not be about politics, it should be about putting Carmel kids first, not a political party. The candidates’ political affiliation should not be the first thing listed on any description since this is a nonpartisan election. We should be focused on qualifications for the role, not partisan politics. It’s alarming that this election is so political that an out of state PAC is targeting our voters.

In my case, the information on the site is true, but this is not the key information I provide to voters when I ask for their vote. I did notice that the candidates are not listed in alphabetical order; it’s appears that the PAC wants us to focus on the politics and vote based on party affiliation instead of qualifications.
Stephanie Flittner - District 1 Candidate

I was extremely upset when that website was shared with me last week. I want to start out by saying that this school board race (and all Indiana School board races) are supposed to be nonpartisan. My personal political leanings have no place and my personal feelings, politics, and viewpoints will have no bearing on my position as a school board member. It has been disheartening to see that this race has turned political and that this national outside organization - Free to Learn Action - is spending money to interfere with and manipulate this school board election. Free to Learn and Free to Learn Action appear to have deep national pockets, as they have run multiple tv ads in the past year. A national organization has NO place in local school board elections.

I would like to clear up several things from that website:

1. I am NOT a registered Democrat. There is no such thing as being registered for any political party in the state of Indiana. I personally do not affiliate with any party.

2. I have not shared posts regarding or defending Critical Race Theory. I am outspoken personally about learning to be and working to be anti-racist. This is something I feel strongly about as a human, mother, and Christian. I am assuming that the misguided people who created this site cannot see the difference between a loving human being who wants equal treatment for all and CRT (CRT is a graduate level course)

3. I did retweet a letter on my personal twitter page. That retweet was to highlight the text "Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes." We have a horrific maternal death rate in Indiana. And an even more horrific maternal death rate if you are a woman of color. Rates worse than third world countries. But this would not fit the obvious narrative that Free to Learn Action is attempting to show. If only these organizations would spend their money and time to help with a worthy cause such as decreasing maternal death rate or increasing quality prenatal care.
Kristin Kouka - District 1 Candidate
I do think this is quite deceptive to the voters. It has been modified to the author's viewpoint. I was defined with two words that in no way fully communicate to the voters who I am, or what I stand for as a candidate. For example, I do know that we are labeled nonpartisan. Knowing that is the expectation, I have been mislabeled for my views and put into a grouping that does not reflect my views. I am not accusing the people who created this website of anything, but I don't think it correctly or fully represents the entirety of each candidate.

For example, I am a conservative candidate in nature. I believe that the parents and family are essentially responsible for leading and educating their children on values that are important to their family and their family's specific values. I do not believe that schools should be allowed to teach controversial material based on what is trending in society.

I honor with my entire heart the work teachers do and the responsibility given to our educators by the parents of the community. It is a huge, tremendous responsibility. It is not an easy job, nor one that is accomplished without tremendous work.

It is quite a race, it seems to be very emotional and that is exceedingly understandable because the emotions are due to the fact that our citizens are protecting their greatest and most precious resource, their children. I do not in any way approve or agree with teaching our children anything that has to do with their bodies or sexuality other than, care for their bodies as they grow, and human reproduction.

If you look at the cognitive understanding and ability of our students from K 12, it is a significant and vast spectrum of the curriculum they need to learn. The appropriate and age-specific curriculum needs to be very specifically approved for each academic year assigned to our students.

It is the voter's responsibility to research the candidates, and it is disheartening that things published would label candidates based on that specific author's viewpoint. But, that is the nature of the world. I do want the highest quality education for our students, I want them protected from highly inappropriate issues that I would not want my own daughter exposed to. When I wish to expose or discuss current issues with my child, I will do that as I deem appropriate and as a Christian, my personal views and values would be different than that of others who have alternative views in our community. I choose to honor their values, religion, and ways of raising their children. I would never be in support of curriculum exposing our students to things that parents are not aware of nor comfortable with, that would be a disservice to our families. Public School should be a tremendous and academically robust experience for all enrolled students. It should never be the lesser option due to the fact that the families don't have other resources to be able to choose to say, I'm leaving and taking my child to a very expensive private school. I want to ensure that every child in CCS has the highest and best experience they can possibly have, resulting in a journey that ends with a successful graduation as they head to their specific first steps in our job market.

So, I would say as a summative viewpoint on your question: Being a parent is the most incredible and most difficult job we are ever blessed with, it is deeply personal and seeped in each family's culture and traditions. The honor and expectation of being an educator is a tremendous responsibility that should be seen as such and those who hire our educators need to honor in the hiring process. As Americans, we need to offer an incredible, challenging, heart-filling, soul-inspiring curriculum in every school in our nation. As a candidate, we each hold specific views and we all deeply wish that voters will know our hearts and our views, it is frustrating to be minimized based on one website/author's viewpoint.

The charge of anyone voted into a School Board position should be to ensure our students are safe, parents are included and valued, and all teachers and staff are held to the highest standard. It is not a position that should be allowed to be skewed by political affiliation or a religious or value-based lens.

One final example. I taught 1st grade for many, many years, every year in my classroom during the Holiday season in our nation, as a Christian, I could have chosen to focus on Christmas alone. It was my classroom and I was not held to a specific holiday curriculum. I chose every year to teach with as much fidelity as I could on every holiday that was celebrated in our nation and around the world. I did not try and persuade my students of my particular viewpoint, I ensured my students felt valued and that their family's specific holiday was honored and gave them a moment in our day to stand with and feel valued in their family's holiday. In my opinion, I think this is a cross-curriculum example of specific strategies teachers can use to ensure all students are honored. Anything that segregates a student, or exposes a student to age-specific inappropriate material, should never be allowed.

I thank you again for allowing me to share my viewpoint. I received a phone call just yesterday from a dear friend who informed me that I was placed in a grouping of people within the race whom I disagree with respectfully on many issues. I think it is just a lack of knowledge. I honor every candidate's viewpoint, but it is critical to the voters that they have the full fidelity of knowledge on every candidate. We all are deeply passionate on our views and how we feel about the future of CCS and for all students enrolled.
Lori Long - District 2 Candidate
It is extremely disturbing that outside interests are working to disrupt and manipulate Carmel's election process. Carmel is a close-knit community of less than 100k people. Our Schools are a stabilizing force in our community and contribute to the economic success of our city. In Indiana, School Board elections are non-partisan, the sole focus should be the students, teachers and administration. For an outside group to interfere with this mission is suspect and nefarious.
Jennifer Nelson-Williams - District 2 Candidate
Prior to your article I had never heard of “Free to Learn Action”. I have no idea who they are, their goals, or their positions on the issues. I do not support or endorse their actions in any way, shape, or form. To be clear, I do not support any national influence in our local elections. This includes the use of partisan fundraising platforms (act blue) being utilized by some candidates in this election. I do not support national or for that matter local political action committees (support CCS) spreading misinformation about candidates in an attempt to influence elections. I believe that voters in Carmel will see through these attempts to misguide our citizens who are intelligent and more than capable of doing the necessary diligence to decide which candidates best reflect their opinions and values.

Dr. Adam Sharp - District 2 Candidate

WHERE CAN YOU FIND ACTUAL INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES?

You are encouraged to seek out your candidate's official website and social media where you can message them directly. You're also encouraged to attend, listen and take part in candidate forums that are being held.

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