Moms for Liberty meets its match: Parents in this swing suburban district are fighting back

Republicans hope to use education wars to turn purple suburbia red. In one Pennsylvania district, that backfired

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 10, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
(Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"Monster Liberty": That's how the otherwise excellent closed-captioning service in the auditorium at Pennridge High School interpreted "Moms for Liberty," while one of several dozen citizens who had waited in line to lambast the group spoke at the podium. A chuckle rose up among the parents in the crowded school board meeting, held on a late August evening after the first day of classes for the Pennridge School District in suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania. "Fair enough," one mother whispered to another. 

That wasn't the only moment of levity that evening, which saw a robust crowd of largely irate parents speak out against the adoption of a social studies curriculum linked to far-right organizations like Moms for Liberty and Hillsdale College. Before the meeting, people exchanged wisecracks about "talented clappers" — an inside-joke reference to an email circulated among local conservatives that appealed for sympathetic outsiders to turn out and applaud the right-wing agenda: "You do not need to be a resident to attend and clap," it advised, for "policies that bless and protect our children."

Most of the attendees saw that appeal as a minor victory, or at least as evidence that they were gaining ground in the battle for control over the school district — one of hundreds of similar battles unfolding all over the country. Yes, the Pennridge school board was dominated by far-right members, one of whom had been present in Washington for Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally-turned-riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Yes, at least five of the nine board members were linked to Moms for Liberty, a right-wing "astroturf" organization that has orchestrated a national campaign to remake public education along arch-conservative and anti-intellectual lines. But Pennridge board meetings for months had been dominated by outraged parents speaking out against the Moms for Liberty incursion and the board majority's apparent agenda. Conservative forces were sufficiently worried about the optics, it appeared, that they were eager to pull in "talented clappers" from outside the community.

A tightly packed group of Moms for Liberty supporters did indeed show up, huddled together in a few rows of seats. Their mood could best be described as "glowering." These were not exactly the "joyful warriors" that Moms for Liberty proudly proclaims fights on their behalf. That term would better fit the majority of attendees at Pennridge High that night, who needed no coaxing to whoop and applaud as one speaker after another took the mic, defending the basic freedom to read whatever books one wants, and denouncing the ahistorical and misleading curriculum that conservative board members wanted to force upon the district's teachers.  

There's been a great deal of media coverage over the past couple of years about the meteoric rise of Moms for Liberty, a well-funded and somewhat secretive Republican-aligned group aimed at expunging supposed "woke" or "progressive" influences from American education. But Pennridge High School that night illustrated a story that's gotten much less attention: The response of fed-up parents and educators who, without anything close to the resources of their conservative opponents, are organizing a grassroots effort to restore American schools to their intended purpose, that of educating children to be citizens of a democracy and full participants in an open society.

The Pennridge school district illustrates a story that hasn't gotten much attention: Fed-up parents and educators, without anything close to the resources of their conservative opponents, are organizing a grassroots effort to restore American schools to their intended purpose, that of educating children to be citizens of a democracy.

This is a battle that's playing out most intensely in suburban counties that used to be rock-solid Republican, but have been trending purple in recent years. In other words, places very much like Bucks County, which sits just north of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. Bucks County is rich in colonial architecture and American history: William Penn is buried there, and George Washington famously crossed the Delaware from Bucks County to capture Trenton, New Jersey, in the winter of 1776. Although the county remains predominantly white it has gradually become more diverse, and is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. 

In the Pennridge district, as in many other places in Pennsylvania and across the nation, the people fighting back against Moms for Liberty are all too aware that their communities are being targeted by Republican operatives who hope to use these culture-war battles to flip purplish suburban areas back to red, and return Donald Trump to the White House in 2024. (Democrats have won Bucks County in every presidential election since 1992, but often by a whisker: Hillary Clinton's 2016 margin over Trump was less than 3,000 votes out of nearly 400,000 cast.)

Protest against Moms For LibertyProtesters outside the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia, June 30, 2023. (Mark Makela for the Washington Post via Getty Images)For Pennridge, the resistance came together to form the Ridge Network, whose Facebook group now has nearly 1,400 members, even though this is the smallest school district in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Parents and activists who spoke to Salon noted that the network was initially just a handful of people who wanted to raise the alarm about the Moms for Liberty takeover of their school board. Many of them first became aware after seeing social media posts from Joan Cullen, the elected board member who had been at Trump's Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, 2021. 

"About two years ago now, I was hearing stuff about the school board and just, like, not really believing what was going on," said Laura Foster, who graduated from Pennridge herself and moved back to the area to enroll her own kids in the school. "Then I started going to school board meetings. I'm like, what is going on here?"

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Newly elected board members "were all fired up and they were saying that critical race theory was rampant in our schools, and radical gender theory," said local parent Darren Laustsen. "That we were teaching our kids to hate their white skin. I was like, oh man, these are not serious people. My daughter was getting ready to go into first grade and I was like, man, we gotta do something about this."

As the Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported, but Pennridge parents almost certainly didn't know at the time, their school board was one of many across the nation, specifically concentrated in districts that could swing the presidential election, that had been targeted for takeover by Moms for Liberty. "[F]ive of the nine Pennridge School Board members are linked to Moms for Liberty, the far-right so-called parental rights organization," the SPLC noted.

"The fox is in the henhouse"

Members of the Ridge Network repeatedly used the word "playbook" to describe what they've seen spool out since the Moms for Liberty takeover. First came the elimination of diversity, equality and inclusion policies, commonly known as DEI. Then the censorship campaign began, first by removing Pride flags from classrooms and then removing specific books about specific subjects from classrooms and school libraries. Then came an abrupt push to rewrite the entire social studies curriculum to advance what looked a lot like far-right ideology. 

Over the past year or so, said Ridge Network parent Jane Cramer, "The momentum really escalated and there were several different policies" that the school board tried to push through at the same time. She suggested it was a "specific strategy" of "throwing a lot at people, all at once, to overwhelm them."

This suspicion that the school board was flooding the zone with you-know-what was seemingly confirmed this past summer, when Moms for Liberty held its summit in Philadelphia, just a half-hour drive from the Pennridge district. At that summit, a purported education expert named Jordan Adams gave a speech explaining the blitz strategy aimed at imposing a right-wing agenda on a school district over community objections. 

"We should be moving on multiple policy areas and it should be happening quickly and efficiently," Adams explained. That way, the community "cannot keep up with all of it."

As for those parents who did object, Adams said, that was generally a good sign for his movement: "The right people are freaking out because the fox is in the henhouse."

Moms For Liberty podium 1484285145A speaker at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia, June 2023. (Hannah Beier for the Washington Post/Getty Images)Members of the Ridge Network jumped to attention when that speech, which was not meant for public consumption, was leaked. Jordan Adams, as it happened, was exactly the fox they wanted to eject from their own henhouse. 

Adams, as Popular Information reported, is 31 years old and "does not have any experience developing curricula for public schools." He only launched his education consultant company, Vermilion, in March of this year. When Salon reached out to Adams, he sent a résumé indicating that he holds a teaching certificate in the state of Texas and has five years' experience as a teacher. But what got him a contract with Pennridge — which, so far, is the only public school district that has agreed to buy his curriculum — was almost certainly his five years working at Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is also where he got his undergraduate degree. 

As Kathryn Joyce wrote last year in an exclusive report for Salon, Hillsdale College is a central institution in the Christian right's campaign to destroy or transform secular public education in the U.S. Hillsdale "has become a leading force in promoting a conservative and overtly Christian reading of American history and the U.S. Constitution," Joyce wrote. The school has even feature "lectures describing the Jan. 6 insurrection as a hoax and Vladimir Putin as a 'hero to populist conservatives around the world.'" Adams was previously hired by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to review the state's textbooks. It was Adams who made the notorious claim that a math textbook was covertly advancing "critical race theory" because of a word problem that used statistics about race and policing. 

From the get-go, Adams' relationship to the Pennridge school board has been shrouded in secrecy. Board member Ron Wurz, who opposes the Moms for Liberty agenda, told Salon that the district's contract with Adams was only announced to the administration and the school board two days before a scheduled meeting. Typically, he said, the school board and district administrators would be given time to review such a big hire before he was presented to the public. Instead, Adams was sprung on everyone with the bare minimum of notice required by law. 

It got worse from there, Wurz said. Initially, the public and board members not involved in the hiring were told that Adams had merely been engaged to review the social studies curriculum. That wasn't true, Wurz said: "It turns out he actually wrote a lot of the curriculum himself." The school superintendent also protested, arguing that the process was "rushed through" in an apparent effort to evade the objections of teachers and push the Hillsdale-approved curriculum directly into classroom. But since the Moms for Liberty-aligned members had a 5-4 board majority, they voted it through anyway. 

If that haste and secrecy were intended to get a right-wing educational agenda enacted without the community noticing, Cramer told Salon, it had exactly the opposite effect. "With the Jordan Adams contract being added to the agenda at the last minute," she said, "a lot more people in the community started to hear what was happening."

Purported education expert Jordan Adams is 31 years old and has no experience "developing curricula for public schools." What got him a contract with Pennridge was almost certainly his five years at Hillsdale College in Michigan, a central right-wing institution.

Members of the Ridge Network spread the word. Cramer has been at the forefront of these efforts, using her popular TikTok account, Cringey the Ram, to share videos highlighting the tactics and agenda of Moms for Liberty and similar groups. As Salon witnessed on Aug. 28, school board meetings are now dominated by angry parents, who often read aloud offensive passages from the curriculum Adams brought to Pennridge, especially when it appears to minimize the evils of slavery or the genocide of Native people. Wurz called it a "whitewashing."

"There's a powerful and long-standing resentment on the part of local communities to being pushed around, to having outsiders come, carpetbaggers of one kind or another," Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, told Salon. He's one of the co-authors of "Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics," and said he wasn't surprised by the ballooning backlash against Moms for Liberty in the Pennridge district. That's what tends to happen, he said, when "people become aware that money is coming in from the outside, that communication strategies are coming in from the outside."

So it's no surprise that the people pushing a right-wing agenda on the school board wanted to use subterfuge. But all that did was to increase widespread suspicions within the community about the board's motives and intentions. Kyle Esposito, the vice chair of Pennridge Democrats, told Salon that many local folks now saw the Adams contract as "a bizarre shadow deal" with "an unvetted organization."

In fact, all the attention focused on the Pennridge district has inspired a number of local residents to run for school board, with an eye towards ousting the Moms for Liberty majority. Political newcomer Leah Rash is throwing her hat in the ring for the first time for just this reason. "They pretty much just cut and pasted Hillsdale's curriculum and sold it to us," she told Salon. Citing the con man character from "The Music Man," she said, "They created a problem and then sold the solution."

Another example of how the right's covert tactics have fueled an urge to expose them is seen most clearly in the mission local parent Laustsen has taken on: Figuring out exactly how much book-banning is going on in the Pennridge district, and how it works. 

"So much goddamn money trying to beat this"

Laustsen attended his first school board meeting after hearing about Cullen, the member who posted pictures of herself in Washington on Jan. 6. He described hearing conservative board members "saying that there was a pornography problem in our school libraries," and using words like "'smut' and 'filth' and 'X-rated.'" So he decided, "out of curiosity," to look into the books they were castigating. It started him down a rabbit hole that he says, many months later, he's still amazed he explored. 

One aspect of the national campaign by Moms for Liberty and its allies is the numbing sameness of the list of books that are being identified as objectionable, and in some places banned or restricted. It's a testament to how much this is a top-down campaign that directs local right-wing activists to resources like to decide what books to target. Few, if any, of the books on the list have been formally banned in the Pennridge district, despite the heated rhetoric at school board meetings. The formal process required to challenge and expunge books, it seems, created a meaningful barrier. But when Laustsen looked for the books in question at the Pennridge High library, he found something unusual: It was impossible for any student to check them out. 

"All these books, the books that were being targeted, I was seeing that every single copy was marked as checked out," he told Salon. For the entire year.

One aspect of the national campaign by Moms for Liberty and its allies is the numbing sameness of the list of books that are being identified as objectionable. It's a testament to how much this is a top-down, highly organized effort.

They were the same titles that keep showing up on lists of "banned" books from around the country: "Looking for Alaska" by John Green, winner of the Michael L. Printz Award. "Sold" by Patricia McCormick, a finalist for the National Book Award. "Flamer" by Mike Curato. "Allegedly" by Tiffany D. Jackson, winner of the Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Award. There are numerous others and, of course, none would qualify as "pornography" by anyone's definition. They have likely come to the attention of the would-be censors because they are acclaimed novels touching on subjects of race, gender and sexuality that have sold lots of copies and have a strong fan base among young readers. 

As Lausten described in an article for the Bucks County Beacon, he and other parents kept filing right-to-know requests to find out what exactly was going on with the maybe-banned books. They were stonewalled at every turn. At one point, the school relented and produced a report showing that none of the listed books were checked out. Further digging, however, indicated that the books had been returned right before the report was generated — and then "checked out" immediately after that, for the rest of the year. 

Laustsen hired a lawyer, and is suing the school district. 

The board's conservative majority is "using lawyers as a weapon against the public, basically to create roadblocks hoping that you just eventually give up," he told Salon. "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."

Wurz told Salon that many of the books in question had been formally challenged, but had passed the library's review process and were supposed to remain on the shelves. He said the mysterious "checking out" of the books was exactly what it looked like: "a roundabout way" for conservative board members to make them inaccessible.

Laustsen and other Ridge Network members also discovered that many of the targeted books had been taken off the shelf through the library's "weeding" process. Normally, that would mean removing books from shelves for reasons unrelated to content: The volume's binding has fallen apart, or no one has read them for years. When network members realized the books were being sold off by the library, they bought them and gave them to Laustsen to thank him for his work in uncovering the alleged shadow-banning. 

By filing repeated right-to-know documents with the school district, Laustsen and other Ridge Network members, as well as local journalists, uncovered more connections to right-wing networks. Another conservative group, the Christian-oriented Independence Law Center, was involved with the Pennridge board, and the ILC was in turn linked to the PA Family Council, which USA Today reporter Chris Ullery identified in a public radio interview as "affiliated with Family Research Council, though they try to hide it." With a legacy stretching back to the Reagan years, FRC is a major evangelical activist group with a national focus that broadly opposes abortion, divorce and LGBTQ rights. It has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ullery's USA Today colleague Bethany Rodgers told Pennsylvania public radio station WITF that the Independence Law Center was "actually providing legal services and drafted language and completed policies" to school districts, often "completely behind closed doors." Pennridge was one of those districts. Even as school board members presented ever more restrictive policies on what books were allowed in the library, they did not disclose the influence of the ILC. It wasn't until Rodgers and Ullery filed right-to-know requests that the extent of communications between the school board and the ILC came out. 

The Independence Law Center did not respond to Salon's request for comment. 

"I will stand up for her and other kids like her"

Parents in the Ridge Network repeatedly said they knew that the Moms for Liberty-linked members of the school board almost certainly won't back down. But they persist in hopes to break through to the rest of the community, especially when it comes to electing more moderate members.

"I don't have any expectations of our school board doing anything for our children at all," Foster explained. "I speak to the community."

"We have more people," Cramer said, while admitting, "We're not organized in the best ways, necessarily." As she put it, "We're all obsessed a little bit," and she believes they're making progress.

People got involved in the pushback effort in Bucks County for many different reasons. Some parents who spoke up at the summer board meetings expressed concern that downgraded educational values might make it difficult for their kids to get into good colleges. Wurz observed that even non-parents should be worried, since a "drop in school ranking" was likely to affect property values.

But most parents who spoke to Salon were focused on the issue of day-to-day life for kids in the school, especially in light of the ongoing problem of bullying.

"When my family and I moved here in 2007, we were treated like outsiders," Adrienne King told Salon. "I know a lot of Black families have decided to take their kids out of the district. I don't think that should have to be your only option."

She argued that the Hillsdale curriculum might add to "the environment of bullying and harassment and discrimination" that so many students endure.

"I have a queer kid and she wasn't treated so nicely at the school," said Laura Foster. "The school counselors' hands were tied, in terms of responding, and it broke my heart. Ever since then, I'll do whatever I can to show my daughter that I will stand up for her and other kids like her."

"I made the decision to raise my children in the Pennridge school district, even though it's a two-mom family and they're Asian American," Cramer explained. "I don't live in Mount Airy [a middle-class neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia]. It's not gonna be a DEI utopia in Pennridge, ever. We weren't asking for that. We were asking for basic DEI kind of stuff."

Esposito, who grew up in the community before returning to work with the Pennridge Democrats, worried that the changes to school policy and environment would make mental health issues worse at the school. "A Pennridge student, a friend of mine, died by suicide," he said. "I'm afraid of kids surviving, but when they get to the real world not knowing what the hell's going on because they've had a Pennridge curriculum."

Multiple parents said they expected their kids to leave Bucks County for college and professional careers, and were worried that the district's reshaped policies and curriculum would leave them ill-prepared for the outside world. 

"It's a disservice," said King. "You're not preparing them for where they are hopefully headed in the future."

"This was a whole scripted movement"

Although Ridge Network parents were primarily focused on the well-being of their students and the health of their community, they also understood why Moms for Liberty and other GOP-linked groups have zeroed in on Bucks County. In an increasingly polarized country, control over governor's seats, Congress and even the White House can come down not just to swing states, but to a few counties within those states. 

"Bucks County is one of the swingiest counties in one of the swingiest states in America," Zach Montellaro of Politico wrote in August. "President Joe Biden won it in 2020. So did Sen. John Fetterman and Gov. Josh Shapiro two years later. But it's represented by a Republican in Congress."

"As Pennsylvania goes, so goes the presidential race in 2024. And as Bucks County goes, Pennsylvania will go. Everyone should care deeply about this," state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, the chair of the Bucks County Democratic Party, told Politico. Targeting school boards with well-funded takeover campaigns is an effort to redirect local politics toward culture-war fights that Republicans clearly hope will sway some moderate voters back to their side. 

Henig told Salon that Republican strategists "took a message from Glenn Youngkin's victory in the gubernatorial race in Virginia in 2021" that high-octane outrage over alleged left-wing ideology in schools would win over "suburban parents who might otherwise have been more inclined to look to the Democrats."

Republican strategists "took a message" from Glenn Youngkin's 2021 victory in Virginia that high-octane outrage over alleged left-wing ideology in schools would win over "suburban parents who might otherwise have been more inclined to look to the Democrats."

That's a significant factor behind the sudden surge in accusations that numerous well-regarded YA novels are "pornographic" and the intense focus on banning trans kids from team sports, even in school districts where no trans kids have tried out for teams. The goal is to stoke a narrative that Democrats have gone "too far" and that voters should squelch their concerns about Trump and the MAGA movement, on the premise that only the GOP will "protect" children.

Kevin Leven of the Bucks County Anti-Racism Coalition told Salon this was part of the reason he was attending the Pennridge school board meetings. "It looks as though things are lining up" for the Pennridge district "to be Vermilion's premiere in the country," he said, referring to Jordan Adams' consulting firm that wrote the new curriculum.

Leven noted that Adams had first tried to sell his curriculum to a school district in Sarasota, Florida. That seemed like a perfect fit, since the chair of the Sarasota County school board, Bridget Ziegler, is a co-founder of Moms for Liberty and her husband, Christian Ziegler, is chair of the Florida Republican Party. But even in that solidly conservative district, the board eventually rejected Vermilion by a 3-2 vote. Adams moved on to Bucks County.

Activists connected to Moms for Liberty and the Hillsdale network clearly have national goals, and are flush with dark money. But as Pennridge makes clear, they're beginning to encounter a resistance movement that is less well-funded but is rapidly learning how to organize on a grassroots level. 

Elizabeth Mikitarian is a retired kindergarten teacher who started the bluntly-named Stop Moms for Liberty. The group's premise, she said, is to be "a communication tool so that the boots on the ground that are doing the work to fight back have a way to collaborate, to plan jointly and to share information across the country." She started the networking group after organizing against Moms for Liberty from her home in Florida — and then she attended a similar school board meeting in Massachusetts, where she lives part-time.

"I heard the exact same speeches that I had heard in the state of Florida," she said. "I realized this was a whole scripted movement," not a matter of "concerned parents going to the podium" in district after district.

Moms for Liberty "have full staff at the national level, paid positions at the national level," she said. "We are pretty much the opposite." Her group has no significant funding, she said, and isn't a formally registered nonprofit. It's essentially an online clearinghouse where people who want to fight the right-wing takeover of school boards can find each other.

Even without the resources of their opponents, affiliates of Stop Moms for Liberty are already having some success in blocking book bans and electing new school board members. What they lack in money, Mikitarian argued, they make up for by being fueled by "passion, instead of being driven by fear."

"We are a diverse group that has the parents that have bothered to do the homework," she said. "Our contention is that Moms for Liberty has an issue with society," which they are taking out on children.

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Greg Sargent of the Washington Post recently profiled a group similar to the Ridge Network — Hanover Citizens for an Elected School Board, in a rural and suburban county north of Richmond, Virginia. As with the affiliates of Stop Moms for Liberty, the Virginia group is purely grassroots but compensates for its lack of organizing experience with deep local knowledge and a belief in the value of public education. And it's not purely partisan: The far-right agenda in that district is so unpopular that many people aligned with Hanover Citizens are Republicans. One joked to Sargent, "I'm losing friends over this."

Pennridge board member Ron Wurz understands that personally. He's a former Republican who is now a Democrat, but says he's never been a perfect fit with either party. He could no longer tolerate the GOP, he said, with "the way they're going about running schools, too political and not really focused on the kids."

That theme emerged over and over in conversations with parents and educators who are fighting the far-right campaign against modern public education: This is not about "politics," but about the kids. While most of the folks involved in Pennridge probably count as liberals, many emphasized that they do not believe, as Moms for Liberty claims they do, that schools should indoctrinate kids with their ideology or their values. One organizer, who wished to remain anonymous because she's looking for a job, told Salon, "I do believe parents can decide for their own child. It's called parenting. No one's taking that from you."

But when a small group wants to make parenting decisions for "the entire district," she said, that ticks other people off.

While most of the folks involved in Pennridge probably count as liberals, many emphasized that they do not believe, as Moms for Liberty claims they do, that schools should indoctrinate kids with their ideology or their values.

Rash said she's had good conversations with parents of all political persuasions while campaigning for school board. "Regardless of Republican or Democrat, people respect the teachers at Pennridge," she said. "So they aren't happy with them being overlooked and then ignored."

Groups like Moms for Liberty have zeroed in on school boards, because, as Wurz pointed out, they are usually chosen in low-profile, low-turnout elections, making it easier to organize an electoral takeover. But as the situation in Pennridge — and, increasingly, across the country — makes clear, there's another side to this story. National politics can often seem abstract, making it easier to reduce everything to party affiliation and bumper sticker slogans. But what students are taught in the local school isn't abstract at all. As Ridge Network supporters emphasized, it impacts everything from daily life to future educational prospects to suburban property values. With real-world issues at stake, the backlash against Moms for Liberty only seems to be spreading and strengthening.

No one at Moms for Liberty and no member of the Pennridge school board, other than Ron Wurz, replied to Salon's requests for comment.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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