Moms for Liberty isn’t just another far-right anti-government organization. It’s an important part of the Republican effort to regain ground in the suburbs in 2024. Their strategy: Organize and foster outrage around buzzwords like “parents’ rights” and whatever the bigoted flavor of the month is, like book-banning, anti-wokeness, critical race theory, opposition to trans girls in sports, or something yet to be determined. School board races are at the center of the Moms for Liberty strategy, with the group endorsing hundreds of candidates around the country for elections with minimal public awareness and low voter turnout. The good news is the group is starting to draw real pushback.
Amanda Marcotte reports for Salon on an effort to fight the far-right school board in the Pennridge School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that five of nine board members are linked to Moms for Liberty. That board has sought to remake the Pennridge schools in its own image by eliminating diversity, equality, and inclusion policies; removing Pride flags; banning books; adopting a right-wing social studies curriculum; and hiring a consultant linked to the far-right Christian Hillsdale College, a favorite of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
While they can’t (yet) change the composition of the school board, local parents concerned about those changes have managed to put enough pressure on the board that local conservatives are recruiting audience members from outside the district to come serve as “talented clappers” to “support our brave school board members.” It’s a good sign for November, when the board is up for reelection.
Jane Cramer, one of the parents in the Ridge Network—the group that came together to oppose the far-right agenda—told Marcotte that in the flurry of policies coming from the board, she saw a "specific strategy" of "throwing a lot at people, all at once, to overwhelm them." Another local parent, Darren Laustsen, discovered another strategy: Rather than officially being banned, a number of books that are frequent censorship targets were being put out of students’ reach by being checked out of school libraries—all year long. When he and other parents got a response to a series of right-to-know requests, it was the school claiming that none of the books at issue were checked out. They weren’t—that day. They’d been returned, the school produced its report, and they were immediately checked out again. Laustsen is suing.
The right-wing school board members are "using lawyers as a weapon against the public, basically to create roadblocks hoping that you just eventually give up," he told Marcotte. "The more they did that, the more I was just like, f**k this. It just pissed me off, so I've spent, like, so much goddamn money trying to beat this."
Parents of Black kids and LGBTQ+ kids cited bullying concerns and an overall negative environment for their children. Other parents are worried about the educational effect of curriculum written by an unqualified ideologue.
Even if Moms for Liberty is thrown out in November, though, it’s going to take time to undo the damage they’ve done. Which, again, is probably part of the plan.
Pennridge, in the Pennsylvania battleground of Bucks County, turns out to be a pretty typical Moms for Liberty target. While the organization started in Florida and has a lot of chapters there, a new analysis from Brookings finds that:
… most Americans who live in a county with an M4L chapter are in “blue” counties (54%) or “purple” counties (30%). Meanwhile, only 17% of Americans who live in a county with an M4L chapter are in Republican-leaning areas. Most Americans who live in a county with an M4L presence are in suburban areas (56%), with a small share (7%) in rural areas.
Moms for Liberty has had success in purple areas, winning 51% of those races. That puts them in a position to do real damage.
The good news is that people are catching on and organizing against extremist school board candidates. In Nebraska, a Moms for Liberty-aligned member of the Papillion-La Vista school board resigned after facing local opposition. In Iowa, LGBTQ+ and other advocacy groups are organizing around school board races to blunt the harms of the recent state laws banning books with sexual content and requiring schools to tell parents if their kids want to use a different name or pronouns, among other items off the Moms for Liberty wish list.
Many of the efforts to fight Moms for Liberty are local and entirely volunteer-driven, while Moms for Liberty “have full staff at the national level, paid positions at the national level,” as one Pennridge parent told Marcotte. But progressive groups are starting to focus on the issue, with Run for Something recently announcing a plan to put $10 million into school board races in 2023 and 2024. That’s important because as it stands now, grassroots parents are trying to out-organize a group that’s quickly become a well-funded part of the Republican battle plan.
Book-banning is not popular, even among Republicans. They’re also finding that their effort to turn “wokeness” into a major public obsession is falling flat, and moving on in search of the next thing to demonize. But the group is incredibly well organized and well funded, and has a big platform on Fox News. The fight has to be taken very seriously, because while the schools and the fates of the kids who attend them should matter to you, it’s not just about schools. It’s about making inroads with white suburban voters for 2024, about rallying them around the identity of “moms” who are “defending kids,” and convincing them that opposing bigotry is a direct and personal attack on them. We cannot afford to let that stand.