Politics & Policy

How Deep Was Cardona’s Role in ‘Domestic Terror’ School-Board Letter?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona delivers remarks to honor the Council of Chief State School Officers’ 2020 and 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year at the White House in Washington, D.C. October 18, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In September, the National School Boards Association sent the White House a letter likening school-board protesters to “domestic terrorists” and requested that the administration use any laws at its disposal, including the anti-terrorism PATRIOT Act, to investigate.

At the time, parents across the nation were confronting school boards over their support for Covid masking, shutdowns, and curricula that included critical race theory or associated anti-American and racialist materials. These issues were at the center of numerous political campaigns, most notably Virginia’s governor’s race.

Attorney General Merrick Garland swiftly acquiesced to this odd and unprecedented request. He issued a memorandum to the FBI and U.S. attorneys’ offices directing both to investigate parents protesting school boards and promised to look at a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff,” even though the vast majority of the incidents forwarded by the NSBA did not involve any threats of physical violence. Even the threats did not warrant federal involvement. But Garland’s act served to put parents who had voiced legitimate grievances regarding their children’s education under a pall of suspicion.

When a tweet from critical-race-theory opponent Christopher Rufo that highlighted the letter went viral, numerous major media outlets attempted to gaslight the public. “Contrary to false claims circulating online,” one Associated Press “fact check” noted, “the National School Boards Association didn’t ask President Joe Biden to label protesting parents ‘domestic terrorists,’ and there’s no indication Biden or the Justice Department called them terrorists, either.”

Yet the letter literally used the words “domestic terrorists” on two separate occasions. And it was no accident. The administration’s involvement was predicated on the existence of potential widespread violent “domestic terror.” It was the only real justification for White House intervention using the PATRIOT Act.

After the issue blew up, the NSBA apologized for sending the letter, noting that there “was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance.”

But, as it turns out, the NSBA had indeed consulted with someone on the letter: Education secretary Miguel Cardona.

Internal emails, obtained by Parents Defending Education through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the NSBA coordinated with the White House and the Department of Justice before sending President Biden its request. In an email dated October 5, NSBA secretary-treasurer Kristi Swett noted that NSBA interim CEO Chip Slaven “told the officers he was writing a letter to provide information to the White House, from a request by Secretary Cardona.” In another memo, Viola Garcia, then NSBA president (soon to be appointed to a cushy federal job by Cardona), detailed the organization’s interactions with the administration leading up to the letter.

In a carefully worded statement, an Education Department spokesperson claims that while Cardona “did not solicit a letter from the NSBA, to understand the views and concerns of stakeholders, the Department routinely engages with students, teachers, parents, district leaders and education associates.”

Did the Biden administration really seek to understand the views and concerns of stakeholders, or did Cardona offer the NSBA specific advice on how to ease the way for Garland to write his memorandum? Whose idea was it to use the “domestic terror” verbiage and bring up the PATRIOT Act as an investigative tool?

Such a scandal deserves congressional hearings. And if Cardona helped engineer this transparently political effort to chill speech, he should resign forthwith.

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