As Moms for Liberty spreads, so does school turmoil

Opposition builds as parents’ group stokes nation’s culture wars

Published October 13, 2023 5:00PM (EDT)

Jennifer Pippin, president of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for freedom, attends Jacqueline Rosario's campaign event in Vero Beach, Florida on October 16, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Jennifer Pippin, president of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for freedom, attends Jacqueline Rosario's campaign event in Vero Beach, Florida on October 16, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

Carl Kalauokalani has no children, no background in education and no experience in political or community organizing. Yet a year ago, the San Jose resident started the Santa Clara County chapter of Moms for Liberty, the far-right “parental rights” group stoking the nation’s red-hot culture wars.

Why? Kalauokalani, who works for a software support group and lives in one of the bluest counties in California, says he liked Moms for Liberty’s stated mission — the protection of “parental rights at all levels of government” — when he looked for a way to change “a dysfunctional education system.”

He’d heard stories. School libraries offering pornography. Educators trying to convince children their gender can be changed. Laws in the works to force parents to allow their children to transition or risk losing them. “What is being pushed in today’s classrooms,” Kalauokalani said, “is complete lunacy.”

Armed with such assertions, Kalauokalani and thousands of others have helped Moms for Liberty (also known as “Moms 4 Liberty” and “M4L”) spread from coast to coast. What began in Florida in 2021 with three conservative women (two former school board members from neighboring counties and a current school board member) now claims 130,000 members in 300 chapters in 47 states. Underscoring the nation’s deep divisions over race, sex and gender issues, Moms for Liberty, which started with school board fracases over mask mandates, is roiling communities large and small, red and blue, with vicious fights over what should be taught in schools.

Opposition is growing too. As Moms for Liberty has exploded across the country, so has its branding as a “non-partisan” group of “joyful warriors.” Reports that members engage in harassing critics, even threatening them, keep mounting. A GOP darling, its agenda includes filling school boards with conservatives, a boilerplate Republican strategy for winning wider elections. Under its “parents’ rights” banner, Moms for Liberty pushes core conservative policies: bans on public school education about sex, diversity, LGBTQ issues and the role of race and racism in society. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an avowed conservative, was an early ally, codifying its positions into laws (most recently the “Let Kids Be Kids” laws, including a ban on all discussion of gender through the 12th grade).

Critics say Moms for Liberty (and similar parents’ rights groups it has spawned) has led to a craze in school book bans, whether a majority of parents want them or not. It links parents to, founded by a former Moms for Liberty leader, which rates books based on “inappropriate” passages. PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression, found a 33% spike in school book bans in 2022-2023 (to more than 3,300 in total), when Moms for Liberty’s book campaign took off, over the previous school year. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation’s leading civil rights watchdog, has labeled Moms for Liberty “extremist,” a label that made headlines and cast a gimlet eye on the organization’s mom-and-apple-pie persona. Now the Heritage Foundation is suing the Biden Administration on Moms for Liberty’s behalf, looking for collusion between the White House and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Battle lines drawn, California, where Democrats rule, is leading the official opposition. On Sept. 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a ban on banning textbooks for discriminatory reasons. The law quashes anti-critical race theory resolutions passed by school boards and imposes hefty fines when districts fail to use curriculum that aligns with anti-discrimination laws.

But most of the pushback on Moms for Liberty appears to be coming from the ground. Parents, school officials and community members are speaking out, saying members have bullied, doxxed (made private information public) and threatened those who’ve dared to challenge their positions. In Davis, California, the group has prompted a public outcry after being linked to bomb threats.

In the latest incident, on Sept. 25, officials received emailed bomb threats aimed at schools and the Yolo County library — the fifth such threat in weeks. Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel noted in a statement that the bomb threats began after a contentious Moms for Liberty meeting in August was halted at a local library. Hate speech in the bomb threats was similar to social media posts linked to Yolo Moms for Liberty, Pytel said.

“Although there is currently no evidence pointing to any involvement between local members and the threats,” the police chief said, “the correlation between the two cannot be ignored as part of the overall criminal investigations.”

Yolo County Moms for Liberty has condemned the bomb threats. As Beth Bourne, a group leader, said in a statement published by the Davis Vanguard: “The bomb threats are appalling. … They do not help the cause we are fighting for.”

Asked about the reports that Moms for Liberty members are bullying the public, Tia Bess, the group’s national outreach director, cried foul. In her experience, Bess said, Moms members have been intimidated and harassed, not the other way around.

“I had a progressive school board member call me a racial slur because I’m Black and lesbian,” said Bess, a mother of three children in Clay County, Florida. “I got called a token person who Moms for Liberty parades around because she has a special needs child.”

The labels are unproductive, said Bess, who calls herself a mom with “old-school, core conservative values.”

She added, “I just get tired of people getting caught up in labels and parties. At the end of the day, we care about our kids.”

But Liz Mikitarian, a retired Brevard County, Florida, kindergarten teacher and founder of STOP Moms for Liberty, says she tried seeking common ground with the group for a year. She posted comments on Moms for Liberty’s Facebook page. “I was looking for dialogue,” she said. “They weren’t interested.”

Mikitarian knew one of Moms for Liberty’s founders, Tina Descovich, who had been on the Brevard County school board before losing her seat in 2020. The connection didn’t help.

She says she attended increasingly unruly school board meetings as Moms for Liberty jelled. “They were saying they were seeing things in classrooms that were not going on,” Mikitarian said. When she objected, she said, things got ugly.

She says she was mocked and doxxed. “They started calling me a pedophile supporter. It was nuts. And I thought to myself: What is going on? Are there other people feeling this is a straight-out attack on public education? That’s when I started STOP Moms for Liberty.”

The group, she said, now has chapters in over 40 states. Unlike Moms for Liberty, STOP Moms is unincorporated and has no paid staff or funding. Its growth, Mikitarian said, has come through social media.

As Moms for Liberty “continued all these attacks across the country,” Mikitarian said, “people got wind of us across the country.”

The Contra Costa County chapter of STOP Moms formed in mid-August. Erica Dahl, a longtime Democratic activist who teaches pre-K to deaf and hard of hearing children, said she started the group when she saw that Moms for Liberty was becoming a disruptive, divisive influence.

Others felt the same. Dahl said the Contra Costa County group has nearly 200 members while the newly formed Alameda County chapter has more than 150. STOP Moms, she said, is joining with established LGBTQ and racial justice groups to fight Moms for Liberty with plans for specific actions later this year.

Moms for Liberty’s numbers keep growing. The group announces new chapters almost weekly. But whether these new chapters are all up and running or announcements of efforts to start chapters is unclear. The national organization did not respond to questions about what constitutes a chapter. Emails sent to 15 county chapters listed for California on the group’s website went unanswered.

Only Santa Clara County Moms for Liberty agreed to an interview — via emailed questions and answers.

Kalauokalani said the Santa Clara County chapter incorporated on Oct. 1, 2022. He won’t say how many residents have joined. But convincing Santa Clara County residents that the government is turning schools into transgender recruitment grounds may be a hard sell.

Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley and the richest county in California (home of Apple, Google, eBay and Stanford University), is known for its good schools. Not all of its districts are high performers, but it includes the state’s No. 1 ranked school district, Palo Alto Unified. Not to mention it is in the heavily Democratic San Francisco Bay Area (which includes the capital of “gay America,” San Francisco’s Castro district). In 2020, Biden won almost three-quarters of Santa Clara County’s vote.

Kalauokalani is no newbie to the county. He moved there from his native Hawaii 40 years ago. Still, he bristled when asked what impact his location — Silicon Valley — has had on his recruitment efforts.

“The broader question should be what impact the extreme left agenda is having on our kids and our communities,” he said. “Within the boards of our 31 school districts, I know of a half dozen members that are interested in seeing to the protection of parental rights. That’s a dismal number which we hope to see move in a positive direction in upcoming election cycles.”

By Evelyn Nieves

Evelyn Nieves is an independent journalist who focuses on covering under-covered communities and social issues, especially poverty in the United States.

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