April 2023 Church & State Magazine - April 2023

Mad Moms: A New Christian Nationalist Front Group Claims To Champion Parental Involvement In Public Education. Critics Say There’s A More Nefarious Agenda Afoot

  Kathryn Joyce

On March 1, in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow (R-La.) introduced a new bill, the Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would require all school districts in the country to make their curricula and library offerings available for public scrutiny, allow parents to meet with teachers and address the school board, let the public see school budgets and spending, protect students’ private data and alert parents to violence on school grounds. 

That all these demands are already covered by preexisting laws didn’t stop Letlow or her Republican cosponsors from celebrating the bill as a landmark new protection for conservative parental rights, just as it hasn’t stopped the scores of state-level bills introduced in the last two years that purport to do the same thing. 

Many of these laws have been championed, or more, by Moms for Liberty (M4L), a right-wing activist network founded by three former or current Florida school board members that now has at least 250 chapters across more than 40 states. 

TAMPA, FL - JULY 15: Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice (L) and Tina Descovich present the Liberty Sword to Governor Ron DeSantis before he speaks during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on July 15, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. DeSantis is up for reelection in the 2022 Gubernatorial race against Democratic frontrunner Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL).

Spear of destiny? Moms for Liberty presents “Liberty Sword” to DeSantis (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

In Florida, where the group launched in early 2021, one M4L cofounder helped inspire the 2022 Parental Rights in Education Act, a measure that has served as a bludgeoning model for conservatives in the rest of the country and has widely been referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law for its ban on public schools teaching about or even acknowledging LGBTQ issues to elementary school children. And the group has certainly welcomed the federal proposal as well, noting in a supportive tweet, “Parental rights are Fundamental Rights that the government doesn’t give you and can’t take away.” 

Since its founding, M4L has spread quickly, and over the last two years, the group has led conservative education movements and school board protests focused on a variety of issues: COVID-19 mask or vaccine mandates, “critical race theory” (CRT) or “social emotional learning” in the classroom, LGBTQ rights and inclusion and efforts to restrict or ban books that small numbers of conservative parents claim are either sexually explicit or too racially sensitive for their children to access. 

M4L has been a prominent force as fights over book bans have proliferated across Florida and other states. In one recent battle that drew national attention, the local school district in Florida’s southeastern Martin County announced it was targeting dozens of books for removal from school libraries, including titles from bestselling authors like Toni Morrison, James Patterson and Jodi Picoult. According to files obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, almost all the listed books had been objected to by a single person: the head of the local M4L chapter. 

Moms for Liberty and fellow-traveling groups tend to describe their origin stories as simple narratives: that the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the subsequent closure of in-person classes, supposedly exposed parents for the first time to how “woke” and inappropriate public school curricula had become that parents looking over the shoulders of their children at work on remote lessons were shocked to see explicit sexuality, nakedly partisan politics or anti-American ideas or that parents objecting to pandemic protection measures were treated poorly. 

In the case of M4L, three Florida mothers and school board members Tina Descovich, Tiffany Justice and Bridget Ziegler say they were moved to do something to address how schools were handling both public health precautions and questions around diversity and race, so they pulled together a small group of worried moms to share their concerns. They began selling T-shirts and grew organically from there. 

The problem is, little of that story is true, argues Maurice T. Cunningham, a former University of Massachusetts professor and author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, who has been tracking the rise of M4L over the last two years and finds that it grew too large and too quickly to be the grassroots organization it claims. 

TAMPA, FL - JULY 15: A sign reading "We Do Not CO-PARENT with the Government" is seen in the hallway during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on July 15, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.

Sign of defiance: Moms for Liberty stakes its claim during Florida conference (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

In a report from the advocacy group Network for Public Education, Cunningham writes, “The t-shirt story evokes an image of two plucky moms banding together, one short step from a bake sale, to raise funds to protect their kids.” 

But in reality, M4L along with other upstart right-wing parental rights groups such as Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education has benefited from, and is part of, a much larger right-wing network that involves both foundation-level funding and the invaluable, in-kind contributions of right-wing media support. 

Unlike true grassroots activism groups, which often struggle to gain publicity, within weeks of its launch, M4L had pulled in press coverage and endorsements from right-wing media figures across the conservative media ecosystem, from the late Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson to Glenn Beck and Breitbart News. 

Far from being just concerned moms, a number of people in the M4L orbit come from public relations and political strategy backgrounds. Descovich herself is a public relations specialist who has touted her expertise in “Strategic Message Delivery” and “Media Relations Management.” Ziegler’s husband, Christian Ziegler, runs a digital marketing company called Microtargeted Media, which has done hundreds of thousands of dollars of work for political action committees tied to Donald Trump.

Christian Ziegler, who was recently elected as the chair of Florida’s Republican Party, has described M4L as a revelation for the GOP, telling The Washington Post in 2021, “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party. … But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”  

In terms of more tangible support, Cunningham’s report found, M4L’s tax returns for 2021 show that the group did not, as its founders claimed, sustain itself primarily through T-shirt sales, but rather through $250,000 in contributions and grants. 

While not all those donations are identified, some of M4L’s more recent donors are known. In 2022, Julie Fancelli, heiress of the Publix grocery chain fortune and a major funder of the Jan. 6, 2021, Stop the Steal rally, donated $50,000 to the M4L Florida PAC, which in turn distributed much of that cash among more than 50 school board candidates. 

When M4L held its first national convention last July, the “Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors National Summit,” it was partially underwritten with another $50,000 grant from the Leadership Institute, the right-wing group that has spent the last four decades training conservative activists. In Tampa, the group held nine closed-door sessions for would-be school board members on everything from specific educational gripes (like “gender ideology,” “school choice” or school discipline reform efforts that date to the presidency of Barack Obama) to nuts-and-bolts lessons in campaign strategy and management. 

Other donors to the summit included the Heritage Foundation, Turning Point USA and Parents Defending Education. M4L has also benefited from fundraisers with figures like former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who appeared at an event where top-tier tickets went for $20,000 apiece. 

Moms for Liberty has also received a boost from its enmeshment in official GOP politics at multiple levels. In 2021, Bridget Ziegler was credited with helping draft Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, later cited as paving the way for the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. 

At last July’s Tampa summit, attendees were addressed by a range of right-wing celebrities and politicians, including U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), former Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and DeSantis (who was presented with a M4L-branded ceremonial “Liberty Sword”). M4L’s publicity is now being handled by a group, Cavalry Strategies, led by Scott’s former chief of staff, and M4L’s executive director for program development, Marie Rogerson, is also a prominent Florida Republican strategist. 

But the influence flows both ways. Last year, M4L joined DeSantis in endorsing dozens of school board candidates in Florida and elsewhere, helping flip a number of school boards into right-wing control, even as many Republican candidates under-performed elsewhere. The prospect of hyper-local races serving as political drivers became a key takeaway from the midterm elections, as conservative commentators echoed the prediction Scott had made at the M4L summit: “If you guys run, you’re gonna make everybody else win. … You will make sure senators win all across the country, congressmen and women win all across the country.”

In February, M4L’s Justice and Descovich were photographed meeting with DeSantis and members of his team as the governor announced a list of moderate or liberal school board members he hopes to oust from their districts in 2024. Ziegler, who is no longer a formal member of M4L, has become chair of one of those flipped boards, in Sarasota County, but has also been hired by the Leadership Institute to fill a specially created role to train other school board candidates around the country as well as being recently appointed by DeSantis to a new conservative board that will oversee governance of the Disney Company. 

“We know now that it was very strategic that the Republicans got involved,” says Liz Kelly Mikitarian, founder of a national coalition called Stop Moms for Liberty. “Once they got involved, this movement of theirs blew up 100,000 members within a short time period and multiple chapters all over the country. That did not happen in a little ‘concerned moms’ movement. It was way bigger than that. It was well-funded, it was scripted by a whole team of media people, and so the trajectory of it was dishonest from the beginning.” 

As it has grown, M4L has only gotten more extreme. In Texas last summer, one local chapter invited anti-LGBTQ figure Kelly Neidert to speak to their members, shortly after Neidert drew attention for organizing multiple ugly anti-Pride Month demonstrations that drew members of the Proud Boys and other far-right groups and after she was banned from Twitter for tweeting, “Let’s start rounding up people who participate in Pride events.” 

Another Texas M4L chapter recently hosted former journalist turned conspiracy theorist Lara Logan, who, as Media Matters reported, spent her speech referencing QAnon tropes about “elites” cannibalizing children, microchips in vaccines and antisemitic myths. 

One local chapter in New Hampshire offered a $500 bounty for any parent who caught a teacher using critical race theory in the classroom. And in Florida, after Descovich lost her school board reelection campaign, her opponent was targeted for vitriolic harassment by parents who called her a “pedophile,” threatened her with violence worse than Jan. 6 and even filed a false child abuse report against her. 

This year, M4L has become actively involved in the growing spate of book bans around the country, particularly in Florida, where the bevy of new education laws promoted by DeSantis has spurred many teachers to remove classroom libraries for fear of facing felony charges if a book they let students read is later judged to be inappropriate. 

M4L has amplified and furthered these trends in various ways: by coauthoring with other conservative groups a list of books they believe are pornographic or contain forbidden CRT; by embedding their members in a new state Department of Education committee to develop training for media specialists who will be tasked with vetting all books available in Florida public schools; and by creating a searchable database of crowd-sourced book reviews that tabulate quotations from books that members might use to challenge books in front of their own local school board. 

As a former teacher, Mikitarian said that the end goal of all this activity isn’t just conservative dominance over school boards at the local level it’s an attack on the very concept of public education. 

“If they can convince the populace that the public school system is not good, and therefore they should support things like vouchers, then who comes in to profit from that?” Mikitarian asked. “This is the biggest thing that I’ve ever seen come down the pike as far as education in this country is concerned. And it’s frightening.” 

Kathryn Joyce is an investigative reporter, editor and the author of two books: The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Vox, The Nation, Cosmopolitan, Religion Dispatches and other publications. 

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