Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
A conservative parent group that has grown more vocal in Utah over the last year is now launching a political action committee that will further expand its influence in education and allow it to finance candidates and campaigns.
Utah Parents United, a nonprofit, filed earlier this month with the state elections office to create the Utah Parents in Action PAC. It is a significant pivot for the organization.
Nichole Mason, president of the group, said in a statement that the committee will be “dedicated to promoting candidates who support parental rights in education.” It was approved by the Utah Office of Elections on March 9.
If the PAC doesn’t plan to fund candidates in federal elections — only state elections — it doesn’t face the contribution limits enforced by the Federal Election Commission, or FEC. (Under those, for instance, a PAC can give $5,000 per election — primary, general or special — to one candidate.)
That appears to be the case as it is not currently registered with the FEC.
In a video the group released Tuesday, one member said they are focusing on local school board races and elections to the Utah State Board of Education.
“We need candidates who think parents are important,” she said. “We need to know what’s going on out there in Utah. We need to have parents from every corner of the state, from Tooele to Vernal, from Cache County all the way down to Washington County.”
The Utah Parents in Action PAC has not yet reported any contributions statewide, which must be disclosed within 31 days to the Utah Office of Elections. But Mason said it will be funded by parents; she has previously said there are 40,000 members of the group.
In addition to candidates, Mason added, they plan to finance causes focused on “strengthening families” in the state. Who the PAC backs must also be publicly reported.
PACs can raise money to influence elections and support or oppose candidates. They often are formed by businesses or to represent industries, such as agriculture, or ideological interests, as is the case with Utah Parents United.
The right-wing parents’ right group has already been actively lobbying around Utah education — before it had financial power — including holding a private meet-and-greet and Capitol tour with state lawmakers.
It has helped lead attacks on how race and equity are taught in Utah’s schools, decrying critical race theory. The group has also protested against mask mandates in classrooms and fought in favor of dropping a social-emotional learning program at Canyons School District because it linked to a site about sex.
Members of Utah Parents United also showed up at legislative committee hearings throughout the recent session, speaking in favor of efforts to allow parents to vet teachers’ lesson plans and for more scrutiny of what educators can talk about.
Mason, who has five kids in Davis School District, said during one hearing that despite requesting to see the curriculum at their schools related to anti-bias lessons, she was denied access.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if we allowed parents to see this before it’s rolled out?” she asked.
Additionally, the group has been the main driver in demonstrating against books in school libraries that members deem obscene. The organization runs a Facebook page called “LaVerna in the Library” where parents can report titles to her that they find concerning. There are more than 1,000 members.
They have fought against books in Canyons, Murray, Davis and Washington County school districts. In Canyons, nine books were initially pulled off the shelves for review — mostly having to do with race and LGBTQ relationships.
“It’s just so shocking,” said Brooke Stephens, the curriculum director for Utah Parents United, in reference to one of the books, “Gender Queer.”
“This isn’t about the left or right deciding no Dr. Seuss or no ‘Tom Sawyer,’” Stephens added. “It’s not about debatable books. It’s about explicit porn.”
The group also released an hourlong video encouraging its members to call their local police departments when they come across objectionable materials at their school libraries.
Other education groups in the state also have PACs, including the largest teachers union here, the Utah Education Association.