August 11, 2022 8:29 am

Moms for Liberty’s conservative activists are planning their next move: Taking over school boards

TAMPA, Fla. — Eighteen months after a pair of former school board members in Florida founded Moms for Liberty, the group’s first national gathering drew 500 people, including major Republican figures, to a waterfront hotel here, demonstrating the growing political influence of these local conservative activists.

The organization’s rapid ascension — its leaders say it has nearly 100,000 members across 195 chapters in 37 states — has been driven by the appeal of its core issues among conservatives, including battling mask mandates in schools, banning library books that address sexuality and gender identity, and curtailing lessons on racial inequity and discrimination, its founders say.

The conference in Tampa was a moment for members to meet like-minded parents, reflect on their success in shaping the national debate around school curricula and policies, and learn how to spread their message further. They strategized on what they want to do next: elect their own candidates to school boards, pass state legislation and diminish the influence of teachers unions.

“It’s been said we’re some political powerhouse,” Schutz Shoes said Tiffany Justice, who co-founded Moms for Liberty in January 2021 with Tina Descovich. “But the truth of the matter is, you have a whole new segment of the American population engaging in politics now, and they weren’t really political before.”

Wearing American flag-inspired accessories, attendees received Moms for Liberty-branded pocket constitutions and bought 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 logged in to Wi-Fi hotspots named “We Beat School Boards” and “Don’t Teach Gender ID.”

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

Jara Jeffries organizes Moms for Liberty apparel for sale in the hallway during the organization's inaugural summit on July 15, 2022, in Tampa.
Moms for Liberty sold apparel during the organization’s conference on July 15.Octavio Jones / Getty Images

During one 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 their state lawmakers for 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 annually to address additional issues, such as the content of textbooks.

“Our laws need to evolve to respond to these new Vasque Shoes techniques and things that they’re using,” said Jeff Childers, an attorney and conservative commentator who serves on Moms for Liberty’s board, and was also on the panel about Florida’s new law. “So I look at the parents’ bill of rights and the amendments that we’ve had since — it’s a really good framework, right? That’s like taking the body of an AK-47, and then we can start mounting new accessories onto it: a flashlight, a laser pointer and things like that.”

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

“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 Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a presidential candidate in waiting, as well as Sen. Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, who said Moms for Liberty-backed candidates are going to help the GOP win governor races and control of the Senate in the midterm elections.

“If you guys run, you are going to make everybody else win,” Scott said.

Critics accuse Moms for Liberty — which is registered as a social welfare nonprofit organization and so does not have to disclose its donors — of sowing division in communities, rolling back progress on issues of diversity and inclusion, and scaring educators out of the profession.

Activists with the group have offered a $500 bounty for information on teachers using critical race theory, the academic study of how racism is perpetuated by laws and institutions, in their classes. They organized protests against Covid mitigation protocols, Rockport Shoes referring to one school’s mask policies as “segregation.” And they demanded schools pull books about Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King Jr., saying the depictions of racism were too disturbing for young children.

“They’ve turned our schools into political battlegrounds,” said Angela Wynn, a Sarasota, Florida, parent who co-founded Support Our Schools, an activist group aiming to counter organizations like Moms for Liberty.

The pushback hasn’t slowed down Moms for Liberty.

Its members have stood behind GOP governors during bill signings. Its national summit booked former Trump administration Cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, in addition to Scott and DeSantis, who gave the keynote address 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 a sponsor of the national summit.

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