Last fall, six newly elected conservative members of the Berkeley County, S.C. school board launched a shock-and-awe campaign at their first board meeting, shortly after they were sworn in.
Over the next three hours, despite objections from the other three board members, the conservative majority abruptly fired the district superintendent, terminated the district’s in-house lawyer and banned critical race theory (CRT), an academic framework that analyzes American history through the lens of racism but which has become a political catchall term applied by some conservatives to any teaching that addresses race or diversity.
Their decisions were met with cries of anger and frustration from the standing-room-only crowd. One of the dissenting board members called the superintendent’s firing a “political witch hunt.”
The morning after, the conservative parents’ rights group Moms For Liberty took a victory lap, sharing an article on the superintendent’s ouster with their 68,000 followers on Facebook with the caption: “6 new board members clean house first night on the job.”
It was a decisive win for a controversial activist organization barely two years old. The six conservative board members had been endorsed by Moms For Liberty during the November 2022 election, and their wins gave the nonpartisan school board a solidly conservative majority in the affluent suburban county north of Charleston.
Born out of parental frustration over COVID-era school policies like mask mandates, Moms for Liberty has experienced a membership explosion since its incorporation in Florida in early 2021. The organization now claims it has 115,000 members in 275 county chapters across 45 states.
It’s one of the largest and most visible of a pack of conservative groups that have popped up across the country post-pandemic, dedicated to advancing a slate of issues they label “parents’ rights,” that typically include opposing public school programs, books and curriculums that address issues like racial discrimination and inequity, gender identity and sexuality. They’ve gained notoriety and media attention for disrupting school board meetings with claims the schools are teaching critical race theory, attempting to ban books from school libraries, and pushing back against LGBTQ+ inclusion.
But more recently, the group has focused its efforts on local school board elections, training and endorsing candidates. Its website lists a goal of recruiting members to “serve as watchdogs” over every school district in the country.
The Berkeley County school board wasn’t an anomaly. As Moms for Liberty has worked to elect sympathetic school board candidates, similar board takeovers have replayed in school districts across the country, from California to Colorado, Florida to New York.
“It’s a remarkable rise of influence for a group like Moms For Liberty,” said Dr. Kenneth Wong, professor of education policy at Brown University, whose research has focused on education governance and politics. “Right now they are still sort of the loud minority, so they want to push the envelope, be disruptive, get attention, show they’re taking matters into their own hands.”
But successful school board takeovers like the one in Berkeley County are a sign that Moms For Liberty, no longer just pockets of parents working to ban books or protest CRT, is moving into a new era of policy-making and political influence.
“Over the next year we will begin to see evidence on how they govern,” Wong said.
“It could go in so many different directions.”
‘Smells like votes’
Moms For Liberty’s first-ever national summit, held in Tampa, Fla. last July, attracted a who’s who of conservative speakers including Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Some of the nation’s most influential conservative institutions hosted booths at the event, including Turning Point USA, the Leadership Institute, Heritage Action and Liberty University. One of the summit’s wi-fi hotspots was named “We Beat School Boards.”
A representative of Moms for Liberty stopped responding to Reckon’s requests for an interview.
Since its beginning, Moms For Liberty has had ties to conservative and GOP leadership. Its founders, Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, are former Florida school board members who advised DeSantis on education initiatives. Shortly after launching Moms For Liberty in early 2021, they were invited to promote the group on conservative media outlets like Breitbart, The Rush Limbaugh Show and Tucker Carlson.
And yet Moms For Liberty has managed to appeal to people who might normally sit out partisan politics, distilling conservative talking points into a rallying cry of parental empowerment. They’ve harnessed parents’ concerns for their children and used them to shape national debate around public schools.
“The Moms For Liberty idea is not new; it’s got a solid, 100-year history,” said Dr. Adam Laats, a professor at Binghamton University (SUNY) whose research has focused on cultural battles over school reform. Back in the 1920s, he said, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) often positioned its members as patriotic mothers defending conservative causes. The national DAR built close ties with conservative political leaders at the time.
Even today, when women are no longer sidelined from running for office, motherhood can be a powerful political tool, he said, used as a way to legitimize a woman’s place in culturally conservative politics.
“In groups like this in the past, they have this sprawling growth and that smells like votes,” he said, “so politicians jump.”
Dr. Rachel Perera, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, has been conducting research to better understand how much power Moms For Liberty and similar groups actually wield.
They’re so new, she said, that “A lot of what we know comes from them telling us how successful they’ve been.”
But historically, Laats said, movements like Moms For Liberty haven’t demonstrated political staying power.
“Conservative moms have been able to do a lot by saying, ‘Our children are in danger from integration, or evolution, or sex ed,’” he said. “They’ve tended to win a lot, passing laws, banning books.
“But as soon as the claims are around for a while and parents see (the divisive issue) is not as dangerous as the activists presented, not only do they start voting for it, but they start advocating for it as a high quality program.”
Right now, conservative leaders are courting parents’ rights groups like Moms For Liberty. In February, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke at a town hall hosted by Moms For Liberty.
At the Moms For Liberty summit last year, Florida Sen. Rick Scott highlighted the group’s potential for harnessing broader political power when he told summit attendees that the candidates they endorse will help the GOP take control of the Senate and governor’s offices across the country: “If you guys run, you are going to make everybody else win.”
Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Florida Republican Party and husband of Moms For Liberty organizer Bridget Ziegler, spelled out Moms for Liberty’s electoral potential back in 2021:
“I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic,” Ziegler told the Washington Post.
“But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”
Liz Mikitarian, a retired educator from Brevard County, Fla., watched as Moms For Liberty-endorsed candidates flipped the school board in her county to a conservative majority in November 2022. Two weeks after the election, the new board members surprised the crowd at their first board meeting by suddenly proposing firing Superintendent Mark Mullins. He chose to resign before it could be brought to a vote.
“It’s all part of the takeover plan,” said Mikitarian. “Once they have a majority (on a school board), they’re taking this tactic of pushing out or firing superintendents.”
Mikitarian founded the “STOP Moms For Liberty” group on Facebook to provide a virtual gathering place for Brevard parents and teachers who opposed the organization. But then folks from South Carolina reached out, she said, saying they’d had a similar experience with their school board and asking if she’d thought about expanding her movement into other states. She began organizing state-based subgroups.
“We started small just in Brevard County and it took off. We’re now in about 25 states.”
Last year, local Moms For Liberty chapters endorsed 500 school board candidates, most of them first-timers, according to the group’s national website. The group claims 275 of those won their elections.
“Historically speaking, school board elections have a low turnout in general,” Wong said. “And very often, these seats are decided by several hundred votes. So it is easier for well-organized groups such as Moms For Liberty to now fill that gap, to go into these communities and start organizing a slate of candidates that will support their policies.”
Like Brevard County, Fla. or Berkeley County, S.C., several school districts where Moms For Liberty-backed candidates secured a conservative majority on the school board have followed noticeably similar patterns: The newly-elected school board immediately jettisoned a superintendent who had been liked by district parents and, in many cases, had positive performance reviews.
“The superintendent is a symbol of the direction of the district,” said Wong. “(Board members) can show they are now in control by sending a clear message that, as the majority, they can hire and fire the superintendent.”
Overall, Reckon has found 19 instances nationwide in the past 18 months of superintendents ousted by a school board after parents’ rights candidates were elected – actions often met by public outrage.
In California’s GOP-dominated Orange County, the Orange Unified School District Board’s newly-elected conservative majority voted to fire Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen during a closed-door meeting over the school district’s winter break in January.
In Sarasota County, Fla., at the first meeting of the new conservative-majority school board last December, the board voted along partisan lines to oust superintendent Brennan Asplen.
A local political website congratulated Bridget Ziegler, one of the board members, for being able to “soon claim the scalp” of the Sarasota County superintendent.
A chilling effect
What happens when the disruptors become the governing party?
In some cases, chaos. In February, more than 1,000 district teachers called in sick in Douglas County, Colo. to protest the looming ouster of Superintendent Corey Wise, prompting the district to cancel all classes. The newly conservative school board later voted to fire Wise anyway, in a 4-3 decision split along party lines.
In New Hanover County, N.C., where Moms For Liberty helped flip the board to a 4-3 conservative majority, a February meeting drew a raucous crowd – and a heavier-than-normal law enforcement presence – because the new board members were scheduled to vote on a policy to ban transgender students from playing on school sports teams based on their gender identity. Members of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys were there. Fifty members of the public signed up to speak, many of them against the new policy, according to local news reports.
Ultimately, the board passed the new policy anyway.
Mikitarian believes groups like Moms For Liberty often don’t represent the majority in their communities but they’re able to change district policies because they’re organized and connected – and focused on winning elections.
“Democracy isn’t ‘minority rules,’” said Mikitarian, “but that’s what’s happening here because it’s a well-funded minority and they have a whole network of folks pushing their agendas. Whoever’s loud enough comes to the microphone, and folks in decision roles are bowing down to that.”
School board policies that ban educational materials on racial justice, for example, or limit the rights of LGBTQ+ students could begin creating gaps in student learning between school systems, Wong said.
“I think that’s something we all need to be concerned about,” he said. “For school systems that continue to practice a more inclusionary climate, we will continue to see the broadest range of learning opportunities for their students.
“Whereas, in school systems that are beginning to implement the Moms For Liberty education policy agenda, we will see a narrowing set of learning opportunities.”
And a policy doesn’t have to succeed to have a chilling effect on students and teachers.
“If you’re a student, just knowing your government is explicitly targeting you as a gender-journeying person, that can have a crushing effect,” Laats said. “We’ll never know how many lives a policy like that disrupts because it creates a silence.”
Parents push back
During a high school winter carnival in upstate New York last year, Karen Svoboda’s teenage son and his fellow members of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance were handing out rainbow pride flags to families who stopped by their booth. After the carnival, a local politician wrote an article likening the students to “groomers” – a term used to describe a person who builds a relationship with a child in order to sexually abuse them – and “pedophiles.”
Svoboda said Moms For Liberty members in her community amplified the article online to such an extent that she went to the next school board meeting and signed up to speak publicly: “I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m standing here saying this, but can the school board please state, for the record, that the children in this club are not pedophiles?’”
The good news, she said, is that the board did make a statement.
And the situation also galvanized Svoboda into action. When three Moms For Liberty-backed candidates ran for her local school board last spring, Svoboda and friends created an awareness campaign and worked to mobilize voters.
“We had to move quickly because it was right before the school board vote, but we doubled voter turnout,” she said. “People who had never voted before in school board elections came out.”
They succeeded; none of the Moms For Liberty-endorsed candidates won election.
The group has had mixed success in recent months. Despite claiming a 50% win ratio in 2022, few of the endorsed candidates listed on its website for spring 2023 elections won their seats.
“We’ll be looking to see how these conflicts are affecting voter turnout in school board elections,” said Perera. “I think (Moms For Liberty) could be bringing attention to these elections that normally wouldn’t get great voter turnout, and bringing about opposite outcomes from what they’d want.”
The size and decentralization of an organization like Moms For Liberty can also be a liability. The group’s founders have been on the defensive recently, distancing themselves from phrases like “book bans” and defending the actions of their members.
“You have a large, fast growing, loosely-defined group with a lot of freedom at the edges for members to do whatever they think the mission describes,” said Laats. “And so you end up with people banning books about seahorses or saying stuff that will discredit the whole organization.”
After the election, Svoboda said, people from other states contacted her on social media, saying they were in similar situations and asking for her advice.
So Svoboda co-founded Defense of Democracy, a 501c3 nonprofit that advocates for public schools and pushes back against far-right parents’ rights policies. She’s partnered with movements like STOP Moms For Liberty and local groups that have cropped up in response to the parents’ right movement.
Defense for Democracy now has chapters and affiliate groups across the country, amplifying each others’ messages and events, sharing resources and offering advice. They’re currently working to organize a rally this summer in Philadelphia, to run concurrently with the 2023 Moms For Liberty summit.
“Every time we have really worked to mobilize,” she said, “more people turn up.
“Then you have this lovely opposite-domino effect where one person stands up and then all of the sudden, the whole room stands.”