The ironically-named “Moms for Liberty” are certifiably creepy and borderline fascists who would like nothing better than to put an end to public schools and turn them into for-profit re-education camps for right-wing nutsery and white heterosexual Christian patriarchal domination. From Kathryn Joyce in Salon.
Last weekend in Tampa, about 500 members of the conservative education advocacy network Moms for Liberty gathered for their first national summit. True to the spirit of a group that has helped drive many of the most heated school board confrontations of the last two years, the summit’s most headline-grabbing moment came when Betsy DeVos, the former secretary of education under Donald Trump, called for the abolition of the Cabinet-level department she used to run.
“I personally think the Department of Education should not exist,” DeVos said, sparking cheers and a standing ovation, during a lunchtime session named for her recent book, “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.” It’s hardly the first time DeVos has suggested as much (she did so just last month, at an event for conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute), and she’s also hardly alone, as a growing number of Republican politicians and conservative leaders have called for demolishing the DOE in increasingly strident attacks on public education, including a 2021 bill supported by right-wing House Republicans like Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz.
But there was so much more: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis receiving a ceremonial wooden “liberty sword” for his efforts in support of “parents’ rights”; right-wing education activists warning parents that public schools have become “Maoist thought reform prisons” intent on transforming their children into “change agents”; former HUD Secretary Ben Carson promoting his new “Little Patriots” curriculum; Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., promising the audience that, by running for school board, they might provide the coattails congressional and Senate candidates could ride upon; and — likely the real point of the gathering — a suite of nine closed-door strategy sessions training Moms for Liberty activists to launch exactly those kinds of campaigns.
The range and caliber of conservative leaders Moms for Liberty (M4L) were able to attract to the summit is testament to how quickly the group has grown since its founding in 2021 by three conservative Florida women tied into local school board politics: former school board members Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, who run the group today, along with current Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler, coauthor of Florida’s 2021 Parents’ Bill of Rights law and wife of Florida Republican Party vice chair Christian Ziegler, who once enthused that M4L was succeeding where he’d long failed — to mobilize millennial women for the GOP and drive its members to become “foot soldiers” for Ron DeSantis.
Although M4L typically represents itself as nonpartisan and grassroots, the group’s ties to powerful conservative leaders and institutions runs deep, as Olivia Little reported at Media Matters last fall. While the group’s finances are largely opaque, it has received donations from the right-wing Conservatives for Good Government, it hosted a fundraiser (top-tier tickets were $20,000) with former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and it counts a number of Florida elected officials as public allies. In the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month, Maurice Cunningham, author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization,” argued that M4L had grown “at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage” and noted that many of its leaders had backgrounds in marketing, communications and political strategy.
There were other examples of right-wing education narratives. In one strategy session closed to the press, American Enterprise Institute fellow Max Eden, who co-authored a book arguing that Obama-era efforts to reduce racial disparities in school discipline had enabled the 2018 Parkland school massacre, spoke alongside Ryan Petty, a Florida Board of Education member and father of a daughter killed during that shooting. Other closed-door strategy sessions covered topics like “gender ideology” and “school choice.”
But most of the strategy sessions — all hosted by the Leadership Institute, which for more than 40 years has run trainings for conservative activists and claims to have helped launch the careers of several dozen current members of Congress — focused on brass-tacks topics: messaging and comms, website and database maintenance, strategic research, candidate vetting and one session titled simply, “Are you ready to run?”
While M4L itself has issued a sweeping number of school board candidate endorsements nationwide — including several dozen in Florida alone — its members have also started drawing endorsements from figures like DeSantis, who estimates that he’s endorsed 20 to 25 candidates so far. In his speech, DeSantis singled out one such candidate at the summit, and suggested he may endorse more.
“We’ve done a lot of good stuff, but the state is not going to be able to do all this stuff on its own,” said DeSantis. “It’s really the local communities that need to be leading the way when it comes to their school districts.” To that end, he continued, “I have this year made an effort to help promising candidates for school boards across the state of Florida.” That, he suggested, might help address the fact that under the state constitution school board races must be nonpartisan, which DeSantis claimed had resulted in situations where reliably Republican districts have wound up with “left-of-center school boards.”
In the meantime, DeSantis said, “What we’re looking to do is really help candidates who are walking the walk, who have strong values, who are going to be there for parents and put the students first and just shine a little light on that and just help particularly some of our voters who come up to me and ask me these questions.”
On Saturday, Sen. Rick Scott, who preceded DeSantis as governor before moving on to Washington, also spoke to the ways conference attendees could help the broader conservative agenda. While state and national candidates have typically been understood as bringing down-ticket campaigns along, Scott suggested that the reverse could prove true, now that education issues have become such polarized ground.
“If you guys run, you’re going to make everyone else win,” Scott said. “You will make sure senators win all across the country, congressmen and women win all across the country.”
These people are dangerous. You have been warned.