Right-wing personality Candace Owens traveled to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orland to host a town hall panel titled, "Pupil Propaganda," and began by talking about bear sex.
Owens went on to explain how male bears sometimes kill and eat their own cubs in order to regain sexual access to female bears. She said it was the origin of the beloved conservative image of the "Mama Bear" and wondered what might be accomplished if conservatives drew greater inspiration from that ursine fight-to-the-death maternal instinct. In the American context, Owens said, it would mean protecting them from a different range of predators, starting with school boards, but also pharmaceutical companies, politicians and bureaucrats "who accept money…to violate our children mentally and even physically; to, without our express consent, masking them, injecting them, sexualizing them through the education system" and teaching them "ideologies of hate" like critical race theory.
It was all part of the most important fight in the country, Owens said: "The battle for our children against the state" — particularly in the realm of education.
More than any other subject, the battle against public education has represented the through-line of CPAC so far, meriting multiple dedicated panels and at least a mention in a majority of the speeches delivered. Speakers like North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson made hay of the idea that parents protesting school boards were labeled "domestic terrorists," or, as Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley charged, had had the FBI sicced on them. Many suggested Democrats were seeking to "indoctrinate our children," as talk show host Ben Ferguson claimed. Others mused on an imminent reckoning coming through elections from Congress to local school boards.
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Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who has made parental rights a theme of his pre-presidential campaigning, said he'd "battled adversaries all across the world," from the Taliban to China's Xi Jinping. But, he continued, "There is no greater threat to the United States than that which emanates from inside our republic, inside our public school system. If we do not teach our children, the next generation, that we are not a racist nation, then surely the bad guys will come to be right about an America in decline."
Republican Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, whose wife runs a consultancy group that helps establish conservative charter schools, agreed. "The battle for our future, the battle for our country, the battle for our economy is in every public school, every private school, every charter school, and every homeschool across America."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking Thursday night, took potshots at teachers' unions and boasted about his record on "school choice" before getting into the red meat. "We will not spend taxpayer money to teach our kids to hate our country or hate each other," he said, noting that Florida has banned CRT and replaced it with "the most robust civics education in the country" — a "patriotic" curriculum the state developed in partnership with Hillsdale College, a private Michigan Christian college that played a significant role in Trump's 1776 Commission. DeSantis added that he's instituting both new civics tests for students based on that curriculum and a $3,000 bonus for teachers who opt into attending a "bootcamp" on the new conservative standards.
Not to be outdone, Republican Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn argued that Democrats had deliberately taken the culture wars to the classroom because "Their goal is to replace education with indoctrination because that is an essential step for them." As a grandmother, she continued, she wanted her grandkids "to know that the United States of America traces our founding to 1776, not some arbitrary date that a debunked author from The New York Times traces it to…I don't want them to learn how to build a Molotov cocktail for a 'mostly peaceful' protest. I want them to learn the 50 states; I don't want them to feel they have to learn 50 pronouns."
At a long session on Thursday, "Domestic Terrorists Unite: Lessons from Virginia Parents," a panel of four activists from the conservative group Fight for Schools described their activism in Loudon County, Virginia, widely credited with helping lead to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's victory last November. Along with the group's executive director, Ian Prior, three blonde mothers dressed in identical "Fight for Schools" t-shirts described becoming radicalized, first through a pressure campaign to reopen the schools, then growing to envelop complaints about "pornographic" books, critical race theory, and ultimately leading to a campaign to recall school board members.
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At the Orlando hotel where CPAC is being hosted, one mother said they've been treated as near celebrities, as indeed they are on the right. When one mother, Amy Jahr, stood on a chair during a particularly volatile school board meeting last year and began singing the national anthem, she earned an immediate invite onto the Laura Ingraham show on Fox. When the group issued a press release announcing that they'd gathered a huge number of signatures for their recall campaign, another mother, Michele Mege, recalled how conservative commentator Dan Bongino had tearfully thanked them. They were invited to Youngkin's election night watch party in November, and when he won, the mothers said, they danced, cried and received a "giant bear hug" from the new governor-elect.
Together the group, whom Prior cast as veterans of "the Lexington and Concord of the parents' revolution," urged other parents to take up the battle. "If you've got books happening, and it's happening at my kids' schools, and I know those books are happening at your schools," Jahr told the audience, "and now I've got a sexual assault at my kids' school, they're happening at your schools too. You just don't know about it yet."
Prior advised other potential school board activists to look for rivalries and lines of division in their local school boards that they might exploit in their own campaigns. "You're up against a massive bureaucracy so you need every tool at your disposal," he said. And he stressed the possibilities of the movement: "We're looking at a moment where we have the potential to build the biggest bloc of single-issue voters in the history of American politics." That potential wasn't lost on CPAC's organizers, who have packed the conference agenda with school politics.
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In a "talk show" session on Friday morning, conservative commentator and former White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp heralded several conservative educational "freedom fighters." One was a Jan. 6 protester who has admitted to breaking into the U.S. Capitol, Brendon Leslie, also the founder of a right-wing news website that last summer rallied hundreds of parents to protest a South Florida school district over a "trans bathroom policy."
Another panelist was Hannah Smith, a recently-elected member of the school board in Southlake, Texas, which, like Loudoun County has become a name synonymous with conservative revolt, after a Republican-backed slate of right-wing candidates took over the school board by campaigning against a district plan to address racism and diversity. The diversity plan had been introduced after a video of some district high schoolers chanting the n-word went viral, and since the board's takeover of the district has come under unwelcome national attention after a staffer's suggestion that educators teach "opposing" views of the Holocaust. But in Smith's telling, the story is more heroic: "In 2020, the left came for our kids," she told the CPAC audience, and their "plan was defeated because parents like you stood up and said no, this is not happening to our kids, in our schools, on our watch."
The third of Schlapp's freedom fighters was probably the oddest: Leila Centner, founder of a private Miami "happiness school" that caters to wealthy parents and combines right-wing politics with classes on meditating with crystals. The school's website specifies that, as a principled stand against "controlled messaging from the media" it does "not promote or teach Critical Race Theory, Gender Fluidity, or the mainstream narrative surrounding Covid, all hot topics that many schools are now choosing to teach as factual rather than as the theories they are." In April 2021, Centner gained national attention after announcing via an open letter to students' parents that, following guidance from "advisors," she wouldn't employ any staff who received a Covid-19 vaccine, since vaccinated teachers might "be transmitting something from their bodies" that could affect other women's menstrual cycles or students' future fertility. The letter threatened legal action against staff who didn't truthfully report their vaccination status, and, last fall, when vaccines were opened to younger children, Centner required any student who received the shot to stay home for a month.
Despite the media ridicule that followed and requests from some parents that she step down, Centner said at CPAC that she realized she was "on the right path and they don't like the fact that I am letting our kids be kids, because they're on a mission to destroy our youth." She told unhappy parents to take their children elsewhere, and when 100 students left, she said, "I gained more than 100 way-more aligned families — families that moved from all over the country." Now, she said, there's so much demand for a spot in her anti-vaccination academy that she's actively recruiting new teachers, so long as those teachers "understand what our country is about, they're against critical race theory — which I'm completely against — they're against all this crazy transgender stuff that they're teaching in schools."
If that list of job requirements seems like an odd fusion of unrelated conservative hobbyhorses, it is. And it perfectly captures the range of grievances that fell under educational policy at CPAC this year.
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Back at Candace Owens' panel Friday afternoon, the speakers represented a range of conservative complaints. Owens herself charged that Second Wave feminism in the 1970s had lured women out of the home, leading to a "wonderful opportunity…for the state, because in mothers' absence, the Department of Education began raising our children. And today we are reeling from the custodial aftermath of that transfer."
Then there was Stacy Langton, another Virginia mother who became right-wing famous after bringing blown-up illustrations from LGBTQ books "Gender Queer" and "Lawn Boy" to charge that their explicit content amounted to "pedophilia" and illegal "grooming" (the latter since "you cannot present sexual images to children even under the guise of education). In response, Langton, who said she was called to action both by her Christianity and the model of former national security advisor turned QAnon hero Michael Flynn, has created an advocacy group, Mama Grizzlies, that is now advocating for a book labeling system they call "PAW Prints" (Parental Advisory Warning) that she hopes will keep "radical librarians" in check.
There was also Republican Illinois Rep. Mary Miller, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, who described "going at it" with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona over "how many genders" he recognizes.
"They're openly hostile to our American values and it's time to fight back," said Miller. She later added that she'd seen the threat "coming a long time ago. The problem is that we kicked God out of our schools. …We've told our kids that they come from nowhere, and they're here for no purpose and that they're heading for oblivion." Instead, she continued, "We need to tell our kids that we're created by God, they have a gift, they have a purpose, and put that back in the public schools as a foundation."
Another panelist, National Review contributing editor and frequent Fox News guest Deray Murdock, charged that liberal teachings on race amounted to "institutionalized child abuse." Owens agreed, saying that liberal teachings on LGBTQ issues were likewise "child abuse" that should probably result in criminal investigations.
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In a moment that earned her applause from all her fellow panelists and a standing ovation from the audience, Owens called for the complete abolishment of the Department of Education. She said she felt hopeful because she saw the fight over education as a mission that could spark a transformative unity.
"At long last," she said, "we finally have an issue that can bring this country together."