Conservative Moms for Liberty activists plan their next move: taking over school boards

TAMPA, Fla. — Eighteen months after two former Florida school board members founded Moms for Liberty, the group’s first national rally drew 500 people, including prominent Republicans, to a waterfront hotel , demonstrating the growing political influence of these locals. conservative activists.

The organization’s rapid rise – its leaders say it has nearly 100,000 members in 195 chapters in 37 states – has been driven by the appeal of its core issues among conservatives, including the fight against mandates masks in schools, banning library books dealing with sexuality and gender identity, and reducing lessons about racial inequality and discrimination, its founders say.

The Tampa conference was an opportunity for members to meet like-minded parents, reflect on their success in shaping the national debate on school curriculum and policy, and learn how to spread their message further. They’ve strategized about what they want to do next: elect their own school board candidates, pass state laws, and diminish the influence of teachers’ unions.

“We’ve been said to be a political powerhouse,” said Tiffany Justice, who co-founded Moms for Liberty in January 2021 with Tina Descovich. “But the truth is, you have a whole new segment of the American population that is engaging in politics now, and they weren’t really political before.”

Wearing accessories inspired by the American flag, attendees received Moms for Liberty-branded pocket constitutions and purchased t-shirts with John Adams quotes. They browsed booths set up by conservative groups including Turning Point USA, the Leadership Institute and Heritage Action, and the evangelical Liberty University. They connected to Wi-Fi hotspots named “We Beat School Boards” and “Don’t Teach Gender ID”.

In strategy sessions, which journalists were off limits to, they were trained on how to attract media attention, vet candidates, dissect school policies and prepare to run for office. Speakers frequently criticized social emotional learning, an educational approach designed to help children manage their feelings, as a way for schools to inject communist ideas. When an activist called many school mental health programs “another form of indoctrination,” the crowd cheered.

Moms for Liberty sold clothes at the organization’s July 15 conference.Octavio Jones/Getty Images

During a panel, two sponsors of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, described how activists can effectively lobby lawmakers their state to get similar legislation: Bring hard evidence of the problem, target legislators with young children, and propose a bill rather than just complain. Panelists also said they expect to propose amendments to Florida’s version of the law each year to address additional issues, such as textbook content.

“Our laws need to evolve to accommodate these new techniques and things they use,” said Jeff Childers, a conservative lawyer and commentator who serves on the board of Moms for Liberty, and was also on the panel on the Florida’s new law. “So I’m looking at the Parents’ Bill of Rights and the amendments we’ve had since — it’s a really good framework, isn’t it? It’s like taking the body of an AK-47, and then we can start fitting new accessories into it: a flashlight, a laser pointer and things like that.

Childers advised people in more liberal states to try to pass a parental rights measure through their school board or county commission. He said local action would eventually wear down resistance from state-level lawmakers.

“Our adversaries, it’s not just that they don’t care about our children – I believe they’re actively trying to harm our children,” Childers told the audience, to applause.

Attendees also heard speeches from prominent Florida Republicans, including Governor Ron DeSantis, widely seen as a presidential candidate in the pipeline, as well as Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the Republican National Senate Committee, who said the candidates supported by Moms for Liberty were going to help. the GOP wins the gubernatorial races and control of the Senate in the midterm elections.

“If you run, you’re going to win everybody,” Scott said.

Critics accuse Moms for Liberty – which is registered as a social welfare nonprofit and therefore does not have to disclose its donors – of driving division in communities, rolling back progress on issues of diversity and inclusion and scaring off educators outside the profession.

Activists in the group offered a $500 bounty for information about teachers using critical race theory, the academic study of how racism is perpetuated by laws and institutions, in their classrooms. They staged protests against Covid mitigation protocols, calling a school’s mask policies ‘segregation’. And they demanded that schools release books about Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King Jr., saying depictions of racism were too disturbing for young children.

“They’ve turned our schools into political battlegrounds,” said Angela Wynn, a parent from Sarasota, Fla., who co-founded Support Our Schools, an activist group aimed at countering organizations like Moms for Liberty.

Pushback hasn’t slowed Moms for Liberty down.

Its members have stood behind GOP governors when signing bills. Its national summit booked former Trump administration cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, in addition to Scott and DeSantis, who delivered the keynote after accepting a sword from Moms for Liberty. Last month, the organization received an award from the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, which was also one of the sponsors of the national summit.

Image: Governor Desantis speaks at the Moms For Liberty summit in Florida
Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice, left, and Tina Descovich present the Sword of Liberty to Governor Ron DeSantis before his speech at the organization’s summit.Octavio Jones/Getty Images

In interviews, participants shared similar stories of how they joined Moms for Liberty: they had a problem with something that happened at their child’s school, or they were upset about the mask requirements or Covid-related school closures, and they started talking at school board meetings. They connected with other parents in person and on Facebook. They heard about Moms for Liberty online and started a chapter in their county.

“When I go up there on my own, the school board overlooks you,” said Ken Davenport, a chapter dad from Orange County, Florida, who is running for state representative. “When you walk in with 40 people wearing the same shirt, you get stared at. We start to stand up and get noticed, because we’re not just one person screaming.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit on July 15, 2022 in Tampa.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Moms for Liberty summit July 15 in Tampa.Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Members also have access to monthly training sessions hosted by the group’s national leaders, as well as private webinars with GOP lawmakers and conservative activists. Chapter leaders are in frequent contact to strategize.

“So far, they seem to have their say,” said Jennifer Bengtson, vice president of the Association of Mature American Citizens, a conservative advocacy group. She attended the summit because her organization wants to partner with Moms for Liberty.

Aside from a few mentions, little was said about Congress or the presidency. Instead, speakers encouraged attendees to lobby local officials.

DeSantis said he started endorsing school board nominees in part because he saw conservative counties where districts were “fighting tooth and nail to mask kids against their will.”

“Who’s running for governor or senator, those are important, don’t get me wrong,” DeSantis said in his speech. “But these positions have a significant impact on the lives of families in ways that some other offices may not be able to. It is therefore important to participate in it, and I know that this group has understood that.

Image: Governor Desantis speaks at the Moms For Liberty summit in Florida
Casey DeSantis, wife of Governor Ron DeSantis, is joined by her 5-year-old daughter, Madison, after a question and answer session at the Moms for Liberty Summit. Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The new conflicts surrounding schools have caught many school administrators off guard. They’re more used to debates over the length of the school day and teachers’ union contracts, not the political controversies that go viral, said Jonathan Collins, a Brown University public affairs professor who writes a book on school board policy.

Collins said there hasn’t been so much conflict affecting school districts since racial desegregation. He worries that one of the results of the increased politicization of school boards will be entrenched polarization, leading to inaction on new hires and student success goals, because no one will work across ideological lines.

“Everything we see in terms of the playbook being written is a pathway to turning school districts into Congress,” Collins said.

Moms for Liberty didn’t share numbers on how many school board nominees the group’s chapters have endorsed nationwide, but in Florida they’ve backed more than 40 nominees and expect to endorse 20. others in the coming weeks, said Marie Rogerson, the organization’s executive. director of program development.

“They come to us for our endorsement because our moms are on the ground in their area,” Rogerson said. “They know moms talk to people and have an impact, and they want that on their side.”

In a strategy session, Rogerson walked attendees through Moms for Liberty’s three-step verification process: Applicants must complete a questionnaire, attend an interview, and then face a vote by the local chapter.

Paulina Testerman, another co-founder of Support Our Schools, said her group tried to recruit its own school board candidates but was repeatedly rejected by people who feared they would be dragged into the center of a board meeting. hostile board of directors, faced with a group like Moms for Freedom.

“So what’s happening is these people are winning,” she said. “They hunt great candidates because of the chaos they create.”

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