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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.
Video: How Florida school elections are becoming political battlegrounds
“It’s been said we’re some political powerhouse,” 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.
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 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, 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.
In interviews, attendees shared similar stories of how they joined Moms for Liberty: They had an issue with something that happened at their child’s school, or they were upset over mask requirements or Covid-related school closures, and they began speaking at school board meetings. They connected with other parents in person and on Facebook. They learned about Moms for Liberty online and created a chapter in their county.
“When I’m going up there by myself, the school board overlooks you,” said Ken Davenport, a father from a chapter in Orange County, Florida, who is running for state representative. “When you go in with 40 people that have the same shirt on — you’re looked at. We’re starting to rise up and be noticed, because we are not just one person out there screaming.”
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. Chapter leaders are frequently in touch to strategize.
“So far, they seem to have their act together,” said Jennifer Bengtson, a vice president at Association 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 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 families’ lives in a way that some other offices may not be able to do. So it’s important to be involved in it, and I know this group has gotten it.”
The new conflicts enveloping schools have caught many school administrators unprepared. They’re more accustomed to debates about the length of the school day and teachers union contracts, not political controversies that go viral, said Jonathan Collins, a Brown University public affairs professor who is writing a book about school board politics.
Collins said there hasn’t been this much conflict affecting school districts since racial desegregation. He fears one outcome of the increased politicization of school boards will be entrenched polarization, leading to inaction on new hires and student achievement goals because no one will work across ideological lines.
“Everything we’re seeing in terms of the playbook that is being written is a pathway to turning school districts into Congress,” Collins said.
Moms for Liberty did not share figures for the number of school board candidates the group’s chapters have endorsed nationally, but in Florida, they have backed more than 40 candidates and expect to endorse another 20 in the coming weeks, said Marie Rogerson, the organization’s executive director of program development.
“They’re coming to us for our endorsement because our moms are on the ground in their area,” Rogerson said. “They know the moms are out talking to people and making an impact, and they want that on their side.”
At 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 Support Our Schools co-founder, said her group has tried to recruit school board candidates of its own but has been rejected repeatedly by people who fear getting swept into the center of a hostile board meeting, facing down a group like Moms for Liberty.
“So what’s happening is these people are winning,” she said. “They’re chasing off great candidates because of the chaos they are creating.”