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Moms for Liberty wants to open a chapter in every county, to have a presence in every school district.

The organization represents a growing group of conservative parents who are distrustful of public schools and suspicious of the educators who run them. Founded in January 2021 by three Florida women, it has made national headlines over the past two years, decrying masks and Covid-19 precautions.

Now, its members are looking to the future. Chapters all over the country are endorsing candidates for school board elections this fall. Their focus is on growing their membership, but it’s also on setting the agenda for public education.

They have led successful efforts to ban books and classroom discussions on topics such as race, gender and sexuality. They’ve established about 200 county-wide Moms for Liberty chapters, the majority in the South, and the group has been featured heavily on conservative talk shows.

At the Moms for Liberty national conference in Tampa, Florida, in July, the group’s speakers previewed the topics they want parents to be angry about now. Critical race theory, a legal concept that is primarily taught in higher education but has been co-opted by critics to mean any discussions on race, rarely came up from speakers on stage, even though Moms for Liberty members have focused their energy on it for the past two years.

Instead, speakers talked about conspiracy theories surrounding social emotional learning, a framework that includes teaching students how to empathize with others and use mental health coping skills. They talked about gender and sexuality, and they denounced the decisions some schools have made to refer to students by their preferred pronouns. The conference also focused on restorative justice, a concept that attempts to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline through alternative discipline methods. Ryan Petty, whose daughter was murdered in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, led a session that blamed the gunman’s ability to carry out the killing, in part, on the restorative justice practices in his daughter’s school district.

Moms for Liberty claims to have about 100,000 members nationwide. This conference, attended by 500 members and potential members from all over the country, was a celebration of that growth, but it was also a time to strategize. Their speech was militant: Their mantra, “Joyful warriors,” was emblazoned across hats and printed at the top of attendees’ name tags.

The stakes, speakers told attendees, are nothing short of the souls of America’s children.

“We are in the battle for a nation, and we have to protect our children,” Jay Richards, a director and research fellow with conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, told the audience at a conference session titled “Gender Ideology in Our Schools.”

In the two months since the national convention, chapters have held public meetings with Petty as a guest speaker to talk more about restorative justice. They’ve sent out “parent pledges” for school board candidates to sign that signal they agree with Moms for Liberty’s stances. And they’ve ramped up efforts to get books banned from libraries and schools.

But to continue expanding, the group must contend with the fact that most parents are happy with their public schools, said Jack Schneider, an education historian and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“For the most part, people are pretty attached to their public schools and have pretty positive experiences with their own kids,” Schneider said. “There isn’t really a national movement here. You’re certainly not going to see a bipartisan alliance where conservatives and liberals are marching in the streets to finally put an end to whatever they believe is happening inside the schools.”

A recent Gallup poll found that although only 42 percent of adults report being satisfied with the state of education in the nation’s K-12 system, 80 percent of parents are somewhat or completely satisfied with their own child’s public education.

Dawn Celiberti, a Tennessee mother who attended the Moms for Liberty conference, used to be one of those parents, when she had children in school. She worked at the front desk of a public high school for years – the same school her now-adult children once attended. She never had a problem then.

“My district was perfect,” Celiberti said as she watched a large group clad in Moms for Liberty T-shirts pose for a photo in front of the conference hotel staircase.

It’s these other schools she’s been hearing about that have her worried, she explained.

Celiberti is not a member of any specific Moms for Liberty chapter; she attended the July conference because she wants to know more about the group. She’s concerned about what kids are learning in school. She said she doesn’t understand why schools don’t just teach the basics anymore.

“Math, science, history,” she said.

For Celiberti, it doesn’t matter that she has never personally experienced the problems Moms for Liberty says are pervasive in public schools. She believes they exist anyway.

There isn’t a Moms for Liberty chapter where Celiberti lives in Tennessee, but when she left the conference hotel in Tampa, she felt inspired, she said. She decided to start one.

This story about Moms for Liberty was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Ariel Gilreath covers early education and K-12 schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. She most recently...

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