Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Moms for Liberty didn’t exist 3 years ago. Now it’s a GOP kingmaker.

Moms for Liberty didn’t exist 3 years ago. Now it’s a GOP kingmaker.

PHILADELPHIA — A month ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center declared Moms for Liberty an “extremist group” devoted to spreading “messages of anti-inclusion and hate.”

This weekend, five Republican presidential candidates — including front-runner Donald Trump and his leading rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — are taking the stage at a Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia, highlighting their conviction that educational issues will mobilize their base in the 2024 election. It also signals how polarized education politics have become — and spotlights the veneration with which conservatives now regard Moms for Liberty, a group that didn’t exist three years ago but which today boasts more than 100,000 members across 44 states.

“When they mentioned this was a terrorist organization, I said, ‘Well then count me a mom for liberty!’” presidential candidate Nikki Haley declared at the summit on Friday to big cheers, just before a Republican state education official from Oklahoma said they were gathered at the “most important conference to happen in Philadelphia since 1776.”

Liberals revile the group, which wants more parental input over what schools teach and less teaching about hot-button issues including race, gender and sexuality. They see Moms for Liberty as a threat to free speech, public schools and the esteem they say teachers deserve. But, to a generation of conservative parents first exasperated by masking, vaccine mandates and covid-driven school closures, Moms for Liberty has become the champion for a burgeoning parents’ rights movement — one that Republicans say is combating indoctrination around diversity and inclusion.

In its ascent, the group has accrued tremendous influence in the GOP. Although Moms for Liberty does not plan to endorse a presidential candidate — and its founders have not asked for specific actions they’d like the next president to take — chapter leaders are meeting frequently with various campaigns, and the group is assuming a role as one of the new 2024 gatekeepers.

The star-studded roster of speakers at the summit shows candidates “have recognized that the number one domestic policy right now is the concern over the threat to parental rights and the failure of public education,” Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich said.

Co-founder Tiffany Justice said, “It means that, no matter who the nominee is, parents and students will be winning.”

It is unprecedented for presidential candidates to pay this kind of attention to an education-focused pressure group, experts said. It proves that post-pandemic fights about whether and how to teach race, racism, gender identity and sexuality in schools continue to hit a national nerve, said Robert Pondiscio, a fellow studying K-12 education at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It is also a stunning demonstration of Moms for Liberty’s clout, he said.

“Turning Philadelphia into a GOP presidential candidate petting zoo?” Pondiscio said. “That’s extraordinary.”

Americans have long found fault with their school systems, criticizing what was taught and what was left out. But until now, those frustrations mostly played out at the district and state level, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies U.S. education, political and social history.

“Education, formerly a state and local issue, has become a national one,” Zimmerman said. “And that’s what a figure like DeSantis is banking on, that he can ride this to the White House.”

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How education will play with 2024 voters is an open question. Public opinion is split on the K-12 culture wars: 70-plus percent of Americans are concerned by book restrictions in schools and support teaching the “ongoing effects of slavery and racism,” according to recent polling by Fox News and USA Today/Ipsos. On the other hand, a 2022 Washington Post-KFF poll found that two-thirds of adults believe it is inappropriate to discuss trans identity with students in elementary grades or to let transgender girls and women compete in girls’ and women’s sports.

Democrats and Republicans both assert the other side has overplayed their hand in the bitter debates over schooling. Liberals say DeSantis exemplifies a GOP race-to-the-right that will backfire with moderate voters, and even some Republicans at this week’s summit were ambivalent about Florida’s recent expansion of a ban on public school curriculum broaching gender identity and sexual orientation. In a video announcing his reelection campaign, President Biden took aim at “extremists” he said are “banning books and telling people who they can love.”

Conservatives point to DeSantis’s nearly 20-point reelection margin last fall and Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in Virginia’s hotly contested gubernatorial election, which he won by campaigning against mandatory masking and vaccination and the teaching of “critical race theory,” a catchall term used on the right to describe teachings on race that are seen as politically motivated. Kristin Davison, a top strategist on Youngkin’s campaign now helping to lead a pro-DeSantis super PAC, said the pandemic turned living rooms into classrooms and made parents “more aware of what was going on in their children’s lives.”

“It really woke up an entire generation of parents,” Davison said, “and it hasn’t stopped.”

An explosive rise to power

Presidential candidates are courting Moms for Liberty members across early primary and battleground states. Descovich said several campaigns accessed the Moms for Liberty website to gain contact information for chapter leaders and set up events in states including Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

The organization has “an open door with anyone they reach out to,” said Florida GOP chair Christian Ziegler, whose wife helped found Moms for Liberty and remains closely allied with the group. He argued the “culture war” issues that Moms for Liberty has championed were pivotal in Florida’s elections last fall, when Republicans won big.

Listening to DeSantis Friday morning over breakfast, attendees booed a book called “Gender Queer” that some conservatives have worked to remove from schools and cheered on the governor’s declaration he’s “rooting out so-called social-emotional learning.” In the hallway — where Moms for Liberty cookie cutters and “Joyful Warriors” hats were for sale — they buzzed about their school board activism and laughed off the protesters gathered on the street outside with signs like “Protect our LGBTQ youth” and “BAN THE FASCISTS SAVE THE BOOKS.”

“I think moms are the key political force for this 2024 cycle,” DeSantis told the crowd, whom he and other speakers hailed as “mama bears.”

DeSantis also kicked off Moms for Liberty’s inaugural summit last year, when its founders presented him with a sword. The organization pushed for the school curriculum restrictions that DeSantis signed into law, and the Florida governor devoted unusual political capital to school board races during the midterms— endorsing candidates also backed by Moms for Liberty.

He met with the group’s leaders again this year to strategize about the next “target list” of board members he hopes to unseat. And when he made his first swing through the early primary state of South Carolina, he kicked it off with the Charleston County Moms for Liberty chapter.

Tara Wood, the chapter head who introduced him there, said she also attended Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign launch and has been talking with Trump’s campaign. She has already met with Trump’s state director. Another GOP presidential candidate, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, joined Moms for Liberty on their podcast and for early primary state town halls. At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Ramaswamy said, Moms for Liberty approached him with a pledge for candidates. He signed it on the spot.

Ramaswamy and presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, are also set to speak at this week’s summit.

Davison, the pro-DeSantis operative, argued Trump is playing catch-up on issues where GOP governors have led. “This is a movement that ignited and got started without him,” she said.

But Trump also stepped into education wars as president — his Education Department, for example, nixed Obama-era guidelines on accommodating transgender students — and he got plenty of applause as he closed out Friday’s programming, telling attendees, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to America.”

Moms for Liberty launched in 2021 in Brevard County, Fla., to support “parental rights” in public schools, aiming to capitalize on pandemic-era displeasure with masking measures. The group exploded across the country: Within 10 months, it had expanded to 56,000 members and 135 chapters spread across 35 states. As of June, Moms for Liberty has 120,000 members involved in 285 chapters in all but six states, according to Descovich.

The source of its money is murky because, as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Moms for Liberty does not have to disclose the identity of its donors. The group’s 2021 tax filing shows more than $370,000 in revenue and large contributions from unnamed individuals — including sums of $100,000, $20,000, $15,000 and $10,000.

Descovich said in an interview, “We have a tremendous amount of small donors, but we have larger donors now that work with us, too.” She declined to name them.

Since its founding, Moms for Liberty has declared itself nonpartisan. The slate of Republican presidential hopefuls lined up for the summit calls that into question, said Karen Svoboda, head of the liberal parents’ group Defense of Democracy. (Descovich said the group invited President Biden to speak at the summit, but he did not respond; she added that Moms for Liberty has endorsed Democrats in school board races.)

Moms for Liberty’s political reach, Svoboda said, is unmatched by any comparable group on the left — including her own. Defense of Democracy is among a number of education advocacy groups now coalescing to support LGBTQ+ clubs, keep books in schools and expand classroom discussions of race, sex and gender. Svoboda said dozens of Defense of Democracy members plan to travel to Philadelphia to protest outside the Moms for Liberty summit this week.

“Can I talk to Joe Biden or Kamala Harris today? No, never,” she said, referencing the fact Defense of Democracy does not have a stable of high-profile Democratic politicians at its beck and call. “Well, not never, hopefully, but that just does not happen.”

Svoboda said her group had been lobbying the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for months to designate Moms for Liberty as extremist. An SPLC spokesman wrote in a statement that Moms for Liberty merits the term because of its “anti-government principles, its trafficking in conspiracy theories … and its actions to censor school discussions around race, discrimination and LGBTQ+ identities.”

Descovich and Justice declined to comment on the “extremist” label Wednesday. Descovich noted that, right after the SPLC announced the designation, a donor she declined to name offered to match up to $300,000 in contributions. In less than two weeks, she said, Moms for Liberty raised $175,000 in small donations toward that goal.

The “extremist” label is justified, said Esther Prins, a professor at Penn State University who has studied the intersection of education advocacy and Christian nationalism in America.

Prins said the activities of Moms for Liberty chapters — especially efforts to remove books nationwide, many of which are led by group members and which overwhelmingly target people of color and LGBTQ+ authors, a Post analysis found — are consistent with groups that promote a hierarchical social order in which “men are over women, straight people over LGBTQ people.”

Prins said, “That’s why they don’t want children learning about racism or about the existence of people who are not straight or the existence of families that aren’t the heterosexual nuclear family.”

Some invited to the summit have espoused fringe views. One scheduled speaker, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson — now a leading GOP candidate for governor — has said there’s no reason to tell children about “filth” like homosexuality and “transgenderism.” He once wrote that the protagonist of the film “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew … to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets,” using a Yiddish slur for African Americans.

Still, Pondiscio, the American Enterprise Institute fellow, called the “extremist” designation ridiculous and suggested it will only fuel more support for Moms for Liberty as an unfairly embattled group.

“It’s a parent group,” he said. “There’s nothing extremist about them.”

What Moms for Liberty wants

What does Moms for Liberty want in the next president?

That he or she “will have much more respect for parental rights,” Justice said.

Descovich said a new president could “maybe not reach out to the DOJ and the FBI and collude with them,” referring to a much-decried 2022 National School Boards Association letter to Biden that stated parents and others speaking out against school board members might be committing a form of “domestic terrorism.” Email correspondence from the time suggested the NSBA was acting at the request of the White House, although the White House said that wasn’t true. The letter led Attorney General Merrick Garland to direct the FBI to workshop strategies for meeting threats to school employees.

Descovich and Justice didn’t name specific presidential actions on education they hope to see. The group’s website is also short on details. It says Moms for Liberty wants to “promote teaching the principles of liberty in our homes and community.”

In the past two years, Moms for Liberty chapters have won conservative majorities on school boards that then ousted superintendents for supporting lessons about race or banned LGBTQ+ pride flags from classrooms. Other chapters have filed dozens of challenges against school books with sexually explicit and LGBTQ+ content.

Still, others have at times drawn notoriety for stumbles. In Hamilton County, Ind., this month, a chapter leader apologized after quoting Adolf Hitler in a newsletter.

An analysis of book challenges from across the nation shows the majority were filed by just 11 people

GOP presidential candidates have laid out dramatic plans to overhaul education. Multiple contenders want to shut down the Education Department. DeSantis is calling for national “school choice” legislation supporting parents who want to take their kids out of public school. Trump has called for the election of principals — an idea that even Moms for Liberty leaders have dismissed as far-fetched — and vowed he would order the government to cut federal funding for schools promoting “critical race theory, transgender insanity and other inappropriate racial, sexual and political content.”

When Trump said that, the audience, at a North Carolina GOP convention, stood, clapped and whistled for half a minute. It was his biggest applause of the night.

But American education policies and rules are mostly set by states and school districts, said Zimmerman, the University of Pennsylvania professor.

“DeSantis does have a lot of power over education now as a governor, but if and when he’s president, he won’t,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the great irony of all these national figures coming to Philly.”

Natanson reported from Washington.

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