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

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TAMPA, FL – Eighteen months after a pair of former Florida School Board members were founded Mothers for Freedomthe group’s first national gathering that drew 500 people, including key Republican figures, to a waterfront hotel here, indicative of the growing political influence of these local 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 fighting mask mandates in schools, banning library books on sexuality and gender identity, and curtailing lessons on injustice. and racial discrimination, say its founders.

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 curriculum and policies, and learn how to further spread their message. They strategize on what they want to do next: elect their candidates to school boards, pass state legislation and reduce the influence of teachers’ unions.

“We are said to be some political force,” said Tiffany Justice, who co-founded Moms for Liberty in January 2021 with Tina Diskovic. “But the fact of the matter is that you have a whole new segment of the American population getting into politics now, and they weren’t really political before.”

Attendees wore American flag-inspired accessories, received Moms for Liberty-branded pocket staples and purchased T-shirts with quotes from John Adams. Browse the booths set up by conservative groups, including USA turning pointInstitute for Leadership and Legacy, and Liberty Evangelical University. They logged into Wi-Fi hotspots called “We Beat School Boards” and “Don’t Teach Gender ID.”

In strategy sessions, which were off-limits to journalists, they were trained on how to attract media attention, screen candidates, dissect school policies and prepare to run for office. Speakers have often criticized socioemotional learning, an educational approach designed to help children manage their emotions, such as A way for schools to intervene communist ideas. When an activist declared many school mental health programs to be “another form of indoctrination,” the crowd cheered.

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

During one session, two Florida sponsors of parental rights to education law Projectwhich critics dubbed “Don’t say like me” law, how activists can effectively lobby state legislators for similar legislation: provide compelling evidence of the problem, target lawmakers with young children, and propose a bill rather than just file a complaint. Committee members also said they expect to propose amendments to the Florida version of the law annually to address additional issues, such as the content of textbooks.

“Our laws must evolve to respond to these new technologies and the things they use,” said Jeff Childers, an attorney and conservative commentator who serves on the Moms for Liberty board of directors and was also a member of the committee on new Florida law. “So I look at the Parental Rights Act and the amendments we’ve made since then – it’s a really good framework, right? That’s like taking the body of the AK-47, and then we can start fitting new accessories into it: a flashlight, a laser pointer and things of that kind.”

Childers advised those in more liberal states to try to pass the Parental Rights Scale through the school board or district commission. He said the local action will eventually reduce resistance from state lawmakers.

“Our opponents, not only do they not care about our children – I think they are actively trying to harm our children,” Childers told the audience to applause.

Attendees also heard speeches by prominent Florida Republicans, including Governor Ron DeSantisSenator Rick Scott, chair of the Republican National Senate Committee, who has said Mothers for Freedom-backed candidates will help the Republican Party win governor races and control the Senate in the renewal election. midterm.

“If you guys run, you’re going to make everyone win,” 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 sowing division in communities, of holding back progress on issues of diversity and inclusion, and of scaring teachers out of the profession.

Activists with the group Bonus offer of $500 For information on teachers using critical race theory, the academic study of how racism persists, through laws and institutions, in their classrooms. They staged protests against covid-19 mitigation protocols, Referring to one school Hide policies as “class”. delusion Student Schools are pulling books on Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King, Jr., saying portrayals of racism are too disturbing for young children.

“They have turned our schools into political battlegrounds,” said Angela Wayne, a mom in Sarasota, Florida, who co-founded Support Our Schools, an activist group that aims to counter organizations like Moms for Liberty.

Rejection hasn’t slowed the Moms for Liberty movement.

Its members have stood behind the Republican Party Governors while signing bills of exchange. She booked her national summit for two former Trump administration cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, as well as Scott and DeSantis, who gave the keynote after accepting Seif from Mothers for Freedom. Last month, the organization received prize of the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, which was also a sponsor of the National Summit.

Photo: Governor DeSantis speaking at the Mothers for Freedom Conference in Florida
Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice, left, and Tina Diskovic present the Sword of Freedom to Governor Ron DeSantis before his speech at the organization’s summit.Octavio Jones / Getty Images

In interviews, attendees shared similar stories about how they joined Moms for Liberty: They had a problem with something that happened at their children’s school, were upset about Covid-related mask requirements or school closures, and began speaking at school board meetings. They reached out to other parents in person and on Facebook. They learned about Moms for Liberty online and created a class in their county.

“When I get up there on my own, the school board turns a blind eye,” said Ken Davenport, a father from a branch in Orange County, Florida, who is running for state representative. “When you walk in with 40 people wearing the same shirt – you are being looked at. We start to rise up and take notice, because we are not just one person screaming in there.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the opening of the Mothers for Freedom Summit on July 15, 2022 in Tampa.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the Mothers for Freedom Summit on July 15 in Tampa.Octavio Jones / Getty Images

Members also get access to monthly training sessions hosted by the group’s national leaders, as well as private webinars with GOP lawmakers and conservative activists. Branch leaders are often in touch to develop strategies.

“So far, they seem to be doing their job together,” said Jennifer Bingson, vice president of the League of Mature American Citizens, a conservative advocacy group. She attended the summit because her organization is interested in partnering with Moms for Liberty.

Aside from a few mentions, there was little talk of Congress or the presidency. Instead, speakers encouraged attendees to put pressure on local officials.

DeSantis said he began endorsing school board candidates in part because he saw conservative districts where districts were “fighting tooth and nail to hide children against their will.”

“Whoever is running for governor or senator, these are important, don’t get me wrong,” DeSantis said in his speech. But these jobs have a huge impact on families’ lives in a way that some other offices may not be able to do. So it’s important that you participate in it, and I know this group has got it.”

Photo: Governor DeSantis speaking at the Mothers for Freedom Conference 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 Moms for Liberty Summit. Octavio Jones / Getty Images

The new conflicts surrounding schools have left many school administrators unprepared. Jonathan Collins, a professor of public affairs at Brown University who writes a book on school board policies, said they are more accustomed to discussions about school day length and teacher union contracts, rather than the rapidly spreading political controversies.

Collins said there hasn’t been much conflict affecting school districts since desegregation. He fears that one of the results of the increasing politicization of school boards is entrenched polarization, leading to inaction on new hires and student achievement targets because no one will work across ideological lines.

“All we see in terms of evidence being written is a path to turning school districts into Congress,” Collins said.

Mary Rogerson, the organization’s executive director, said Moms for Liberty has not shared figures for the number of school board candidates that the group’s chapters have endorsed nationally, but in Florida, they have supported more than 40 candidates, and they expect to endorse 20 more in the coming weeks. Program development manager.

“They come to us to get our endorsement because our mothers are down to earth in their neighborhood,” Rogerson said. “They know mothers are out to talk to people and make an impact, and they want that on their part.”

In one strategy session, Rogerson walked attendees through Moms for Liberty’s three-step vetting process: Candidates must fill out a questionnaire, participate in 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 school board candidates on its own, but was repeatedly rejected by people who feared being drawn into the middle of a hostile board meeting, in the face of a group like Mothers. for freedom.

“So what happens is these people win,” she said. “They are hunting the great candidates for the chaos they create.”

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