Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and other Republican elected officials are slated to speak at a Mesa town hall Thursday organized by Moms for Liberty, a "parental rights" organization founded in Florida that has been labeled an extremist group and has made national headlines in recent years for attempts to take over school boards and restrict teaching related to race, gender and sexual orientation.
Tom Horne plans to talk about school vouchers
The Moms for Liberty town hall in Mesa is intended to be a community discussion on education in Arizona, according to Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich.
Horne said he doesn't know much about the group but that he agreed to give opening remarks. Moms for Liberty's website, he said, made it appear that the group is interested in school choice.
"It’s no big deal with me,” said Horne, who plans to discuss the state's school voucher program, which was expanded in 2022 to allow any student to use public dollars for private school tuition, home-schooling, tutoring and other educational expenses. Horne has been a proponent of the voucher expansion.
Descovich said the organization invites "all the education leaders" as the group goes from state to state.
"It's important to connect them to our chapters" because the chapters "are going to be a vocal voice as they as they grow, just like they have in other states," Descovich said. The chapters will "be working with legislators to help support legislation and give ideas from parents on the ground, and so I think it's important to start to build that relationship."
At Moms for Liberty's convention this summer, co-founder Tiffany Justice said the group plans to use its political action committee to start endorsing elected superintendents, the Associated Press reported in July.
What other elected officials are expected to attend?
State lawmakers Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, and Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, are expected to participate in a panel at the event. The panel will be moderated by Descovich, and attendees will be able to ask education-related questions.
What is Moms for Liberty?
Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021 by Descovich and Justice, former school board members in Florida, out of opposition to pandemic-related school closures and mask mandates. Its chapters have since made national headlines for attempts to take over school boards, explosive appearances at school board meetings and efforts to restrict the teaching of race and gender-related topics.
The group’s stated goals are to defend parental rights, “stop woke indoctrination” and fight for the “survival of America,” according to its website. It now has 300 chapters in 47 states with 130,000 members, according to Justice.
In 2022, Moms for Liberty endorsed 500 school board candidates and 275 won their elections, according to the group's website.
In June, Moms for Liberty was added to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of extremist groups. The Alabama-based civil rights organization called it an “antigovernment organization” that spreads conspiracy theories and uses its "multiple social media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education ... and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community."
Southern Poverty Law Center's 2022 Year in Hate and Extremism report draws parallels between "parental rights" groups that have been forming across the nation in recent years, including Moms for Liberty, and parent groups that tried to re-segregate public schools during the civil rights movement.
“Moms for Liberty activities make it clear that the group’s primary goals are to fuel right-wing hysteria and to make the world a less comfortable or safe place for certain students — primarily those who are Black, LGBTQ, or who come from LGBTQ families,” the report states.
PEN America, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting free expression, named Moms for Liberty as the most influential organized advocacy group tied to book bans in school districts. These bans — which PEN America defined as complete removals of books or restrictions on student access to books because of their content — have overwhelmingly targeted stories about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals, according to the free expression group. In the first half of the 2022-23 school year, PEN America found that Moms for Liberty was connected to 170 reported book bans in school districts in North Dakota, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Since its founding, Moms for Liberty has received conservative support across the country. At its convention in Philadelphia this summer, which drew hundreds of protestors, Republican presidential candidates including former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave speeches. Earlier this month, DeSantis appointed Descovich to the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Moms for Liberty looking to establish a Maricopa County presence
While Moms for Liberty has drawn national attention for its tactics in other states — especially in Florida and elsewhere on the East Coast — it hasn’t made similar waves in Maricopa County, though it does have a chapter in Pima County. According to its website, Moms for Liberty did not endorse any Arizona school board candidates in 2022.
But after a former Valley-area chapter failed to take hold, the group is now seeking to establish a presence in the Phoenix area.
About a year ago, the group’s Maricopa County chapter, which had been around for about a year, shut down because it was too difficult for “one mom, in her volunteer role, to keep up with for the whole county,” Descovich said. Now, Moms for Liberty is trying again, hoping to establish three chapters across the county.
Its Thursday event is the launch of the first chapter, which will be based in Mesa. Chapters require at least ten members, and the Mesa group has at least that number, Descovich said.
Descovich did not say exactly how the new Maricopa County chapter would focus its efforts. However, she said she’s heard concerns from “moms on the ground” about curriculum transparency, school budgeting transparency, bonds and overrides being sought by school districts, and school-based health clinics and “what that means for children making decisions without parental input and oversight.”
Though Moms for Liberty has not had an established presence in the Valley, its stances and "parental rights" framing have been pushed by another organization, Arizona Women of Action, which was formed in October 2020 and has since been incorporated as a political action committee. That group organizes around similar issues at the school board level, like supporting conservative school board candidates and attempting to ban books and restrict the teaching of race and gender-related topics. This summer, Arizona Women of Action intervened to defend the state’s law prohibiting transgender girls from competing on girls’ school sports teams.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Moms for Liberty is in Mesa. Who are they? Why are they in AZ?