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Moms for Liberty: How an army of education activists has become a national political force

Moms for Liberty pitches itself as a grassroots movement of angry parents, many of whom were inspired by COVID-19 school restrictions to take action.

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Moms for Liberty pitches itself as a grassroots movement of angry parents, many of whom were inspired by COVID-19 school restrictions to take action.

Published Updated

Most moms groups don't have a federal super PAC that can accept unlimited campaign contributions.

They aren’t the creation of experienced political players steeped in years of school culture war battles.

Moms for Liberty is no ordinary moms group.

It’s the political group of the moment, one that’s trying to make a big mark on the 2022 elections and position itself as a juggernaut on education issues with the clout to reshape school policies from coast to coast.

Founded in Florida this year by three registered Republicans who are current or former school board members, Moms for Liberty claims 70,000 members across 165 chapters in 33 states.

The organization – a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose donors – denies that it rose to prominence by tapping into big money,  though it paid former Fox News host Megyn Kelly to appear at an event.

Whether or not big dollars helped jumpstart the group, Moms for Liberty has big ambitions and is poised to ratchet up the partisan warfare that has been building for years around nominally nonpartisan school board races, injecting a new level of conservative activism into such contests that could spill over into races up and down the ballot.

The group exploded onto the political scene in Florida, and around the country, by confronting school officials about issues such as COVID-19 restrictions and how race is taught. It aims to replace many of these officials.

“We realized there was a real need and opportunity … to help families understand how best to advocate for their children … while at the same time help find elected officials who truly understand the need to serve families,” said Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler, a school board member in Sarasota County, Florida.

Like the tea party backlash against President Barack Obama and the rise of liberal “resistance” groups under President Donald Trump, Moms for Liberty embodies the current political environment in America, in which education is preeminent.

GOP leaders say they have the upper hand on education issues, vowing to make 2022 a defining election for conservative school policy.

Education emerged as a flashpoint in 2021 Virginia governor's race: Here's what voters had to say about critical race theory, teachers

Moms for Liberty is at the vanguard of that effort, pitching itself as a potent grassroots movement of outraged parents, many of whom weren’t active in school politics until COVID-19 restrictions forced them to pay attention.

There are signs that Moms for Liberty simply is a repackaging of conservative education activism, one that is attracting individuals who already were highly active in GOP politics.

“It’s a way of capturing the zeitgeist,” said Deana Rohlinger, a Florida State University sociology professor who studies social movements. “Issues that have been important to conservatives for decades, it’s giving it a new flair.” 

Bridget Ziegler, Moms for Liberty co-founder
We realized there was a real need and opportunity … to help families understand how best to advocate for their children … while at the same time help find elected officials who truly understand the need to serve families.

Moms for Liberty leaders say they have a broad mission to educate parents about school issues. Chapters meet regularly to discuss school board agenda items. Their goal is to be in constant communication with school officials, an ever-vigilant watchdog over every school system in the country.

Electing like-minded leaders is a big emphasis, and the 2022 election cycle will test the group’s influence.

"Our focus is educating and uniting moms, but school board elections have an impact, and we'd be remiss to not be paying attention to that," said group co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former school board member in Indian River County, Florida.

Years in the making  

Years in the making  

Moms for Liberty was incorporated Jan. 1 by Justice, Ziegler and former Brevard County, Florida, school board member Tina Descovich.

The co-founders come from similar political environments as Republicans in counties Trump won easily but where school board majorities pushed policies opposed by many on the right.

Ziegler, whose husband is vice chair of the Florida GOP, said Moms for Liberty grew out of years of frustration around school policies perceived as too liberal.

Descovich and Ziegler have long fought such policies. They are former presidents of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, established in 2014 as a conservative education advocacy group.

“The core of it ... there were things we had seen as board members that are appalling, but we were in the minority,” Ziegler said. Schools have been used to push a “leftist, liberal social agenda,” she said.

Ziegler waded into transgender student policies. Descovich advocated for arming school employees after the school shooting Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed. 

Moms For Liberty member Lynn Shepard, center, a father of a kindergartner in Indian River County, Fla., debates other parents on Nov. 16 in the lobby of a school board meeting.
Moms For Liberty member Lynn Shepard, center, a father of a kindergartner in Indian River County, Fla., debates other parents on Nov. 16 in the lobby of a school board meeting. LEAH VOSS/TCPALM

These were emotional debates, but issues such as COVID-19 and critical race theory supercharged the emotions around education policy and created a “mother lode of conservative activism,” said Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Ziegler and Descovich opposed mandatory masking. Descovich was so opposed, she removed her son from public school after the policy passed.

“I voted against it and lost and pulled him out of school the next day,” she said.

Justice didn’t run for reelection in 2020, and Descovich lost her race. Moms for Liberty formed soon after.

Descovich has a background in marketing, which may help explain everything from her group’s catchy name – which she coined and the group is trying to trademark – and nonpartisan branding around parental rights to its aggressive media strategy, all of which could be contributing to its rapid growth.

The founders said the group’s growth is organic, the result of grassroots enthusiasm. The stories told by chapter leaders around the country about why they decided to join back up that claim. Some political observers wonder if the growth also is fueled by big money.

National scope

National scope

Florida has the most Moms for Liberty chapters with 24, followed by Pennsylvania with 19 and Michigan and North Carolina each with nine, but the group’s reach extends across much of the country, driven by issues many parents dealt with during the pandemic.

Parents suddenly were at home with their children and saw how teachers taught, how they paced lessons, how materials were presented and what students were reading, said Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee state director for the Education Trust and a school board member for Metro-Nashville Public Schools.

They became "much more connected to the learning process," she said. Some "became empowered to perhaps intervene and say, ‘This isn’t something I want my kid to learn.’”

Shelly Baker launched a Moms for Liberty chapter in Deschutes County, Oregon, in March after hearing Descovich on conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s radio show encouraging parents to get involved in school issues.

Baker said her school board hasn’t been listening to parents.

The chapter has 120 official members and nearly 1,000 on social media, she said. 

Rebuilding trust and confidence between parents and school leaders is a pillar of Moms for Liberty, Justice said. 

“If we know parents are a huge driver of student success, we should be rolling out the red carpet for them," she said.

Empowering parents is a potent slogan. It’s also vague, and its policy implications aren’t completely clear. 

Knowing more about who funds Moms for Liberty could shed some light on what policies it may pursue, particularly whether it’s aligned with groups pushing school vouchers, more charter schools and other education changes conservatives have long supported. 

There is little information about the money fueling the army of activist moms.

Moms for Liberty is among the growing number of “dark money” groups that don’t have to disclose the names of donors or the dollar amounts given. 

Dark money

Dark money

Descovich denied big donors fueled Moms for Liberty’s early growth.

Though she is not opposed to accepting large donations, Descovich said, the group's fundraising took time to ramp up and the organization relied heavily on T-shirt sales – which, she said, still make up nearly half of its total revenue – and small donors. 

Moms for Liberty had a budget of $150,000 as of early November, she said. That grew to $300,000 by early December. The group moved into a real office after operating out of a bedroom in Descovich's house and the dining room of her sister’s house.

In September, the group began paying someone to manage merchandise. In October, it hired a part-time administrative assistant and began paying stipends to Descovich, its executive director; Marie Rogerson, its director of development; and to the chapter chair coordinator. 

The merchandise manager receives 3% of sales. The other four individuals received $4,000 in combined compensation in October and $6,000 in November, Descovich said.

Noting that "our donors have been increasing tremendously,” Descovich said the group  has no mega donors contributing huge checks. 

Verifying that claim is impossible.

Moms for Liberty isn’t required to file its first financial documents with the IRS until next year and can extend the filing deadline until after the 2022 election. Even then, the public won’t see who funds the group.

As a 501(c)(4) “social-welfare” nonprofit, Moms for Liberty can legally engage in political activity without detailing who finances its efforts.

Though Florida Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, who serves on the state House Education Committee and chairs the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, had to disclose that he gave $2,000 to Moms for Liberty from his campaign account, many of the organization’s donors are likely to stay secret.

Descovich declined to release a list of donors.

“To take your donor list and make it public, I don’t think that’s a fair thing to do if they weren’t expecting it," she said.

The public will get some financial information about the group, such as how much compensation its directors and officers receive. Such organizations must disclose how much they pay their five largest independent contractors and the total amount raised and spent each year. 

“It will identify basically who's getting the money, or large chunks of the money,” University of Notre Dame Law School professor Lloyd Mayer, an expert on nonprofit tax law, said of the group’s tax filing. “It will not identify who's giving the money. As a 501(c)(4), they’re not required to even tell the IRS who their major donors are.”

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Though Moms for Liberty won’t have to disclose its donors, three federal political action committees bearing the group’s name – Moms for Liberty Action, Moms for Liberty  Political Victory Fund and Moms for Liberty PAC – are required to disclose contributions. Moms for Liberty Action is a “super PAC” that can accept campaign contributions of any size. 

The federal committees, established in October, have yet to file financial reports.

The treasurer of the federal PACs is Chris Marston, who was an assistant secretary of education for President George W. Bush and chairman of the Republican Party in Alexandria, Virginia.

Descovich said there are no plans for the federal PACs, but the state-level Joyful Warriors Political Committee will be used to influence Florida school board races in the upcoming election cycle.

Moms for Liberty chapters are also raising money, and some have PACs that they coordinate with.

The Williamson County, Tennessee, chapter has raised about $24,000 since April, according to leader Robin Steenman, much of that for its "Critical Race Theory 101" event.

Steenman is chair of Williamson Families PAC, a conservative group working to elect “leaders that promote academic excellence and practice transparent accountability and fiscal responsibility.” Three members of the PAC’s executive board are active Moms for Liberty members, she told USA TODAY Network-Florida.

Some political science experts aren’t convinced by Moms for Liberty's claims of grassroots growth. 

Cunningham, the University of Massachusetts at Boston professor and author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization,” pointed to an event this summer in Cape Canaveral, Florida, that featured Kelly, the former Fox News host, as keynote speaker. Tickets were $50, and Moms for Liberty sought sponsorships of up $20,000 to finance the event.

There’s a benefit to being seen as a group of local, concerned moms, Cunningham said, but securing speakers such as Kelly is “not just a bake sale.”

Descovich said the group wasn't successful in getting any sponsors to pay $20,000, or even $10,000. The largest amount donated for the event was $5,000, she said. Most of the sponsors were publicly identified in a Facebook post thanking them.

Among the four sponsors who each gave $5,000 were an indoor shooting range and an individual identified as John Galt, a character in Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," which is beloved by many conservatives.

Fine's campaign, former Republican state Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his wife and a political committee controlled by Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield all contributed $2,000 for the event. Former Republican state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and the group Parental Rights Florida also bought sponsorships.

Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican, supports the education activist group Moms for Liberty.
Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican, supports the education activist group Moms for Liberty. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY
Getting organized

Getting organized

Moms for Liberty members could be prime recruits for school board races, but even if candidates don’t emerge directly from its membership ranks, the group seeks to ensure they adhere to its values.

Shawn Frost – a GOP campaign consultant and former Indian River County School Board member who has informally advised Moms for Liberty – helped coordinate training focused on giving those interested in school board races a crash course in what it takes to run for office, work on campaigns and vet candidates.

Frost is the Republican state committeeman for Indian River County and leads the Republican Party of Florida’s Build the Bench Committee, which aims to get more Republicans elected to nonpartisan seats, such as school boards. 

In that role, Frost talked with Moms for Liberty leaders about how they can have an impact in the 2022 election cycle and how he can help. An area of emphasis will be “getting them trained in campaign management,” Frost said. He has more training sessions scheduled around the state.

Despite its strong GOP connections, Moms for Liberty leaders describe the group as nonpartisan as they try to position it to have broad appeal. 

“We are an issue-based organization not affiliated with a political party. We’re nonpartisan,” Descovich said, though she conceded the group is grounded in "conservative values."

Since it's interwoven with GOP leaders and political apparatus, Moms for Liberty could be poised to act as a de facto arm of the Republican Party in the upcoming election cycle. How much it could boost campaigns remains to be seen.

Tina Descovich, Moms for Liberty co-founder
We are an issue-based organization not affiliated with a political party. We’re nonpartisan.

“What we are going to do is make sure everybody is educated on who the candidates are, who we get behind and why, and have the community play a larger role in that," said Alexis Spiegelman, leader of the Moms for Liberty chapter in Florida's Sarasota County.

What’s unclear is whether a chapter with a few dozen active members and a modest reach on Facebook can swing a school board race. Descovich pointed to results from Texas and Pennsylvania that held off-year school board elections last month, citing a string of wins by “parental rights candidates.”

“It’s already happening,” she said.

Education politics preeminent

Education politics preeminent

Since the start of the pandemic, school board meetings have become one of the most volatile battlegrounds in American politics, attracting crowds upset about policies such as mask mandates.

Conservatives have taken exception to how racial issues are taught in many schools, decrying critical race theory, which isn’t taught in most districts but has influenced curriculum in some.

In Virginia's gubernatorial race last month, Republican Glenn Youngkin, who emphasized his opposition to critical race theory and COVID-19 restrictions in schools, rode to victory in a state Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points in the presidential election last year. 

Youngkin’s victory cemented the view among many conservatives that they have the upper hand on education issues and should make them a focal point.

“Education is a tremendous crossover issue, people care about it and it seems like we’re on the winning side of that,” Frost said.

Moms for Liberty members could help carry out some of these political operations.

“We know they’re our people,” said Tampa-based GOP consultant Anthony Pedicini. “I think if you’re a candidate and you want to get volunteers, it’s a pretty easy place to tap into.”

Democrats are preparing to counter the GOP push on education issues by framing opposition to COVID-19 school restrictions as self-centered and a dictatorial effort to usurp control.

“They’ve been appropriating the term 'liberty' as if they have a monopoly on it, and the truth is children and their families also have the right to be alive and not be infected by somebody else,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Jose Parra.

Parra argued that groups such as Moms for Liberty speak more to the base of the GOP than to swing voters and won’t help candidates expand their reach.

Ziegler said Moms for Liberty is poised to have a big impact in 2022. 

“They’ll absolutely be influential,” she said. “I don’t know how any candidate anywhere in this country at this point can’t look at this organization and their numbers and growth and not take them seriously.”

Whatever happens in the next election cycle, Descovich said, Moms for Liberty isn’t going away.

“Our goal is to be in this for the long term, the long game,” she said. “I know this is a political hot issue right now, but I’ve been passionate about this way before it was a political hot issue.”

Contributing: Meghan Mangrum, The Tennessean; Ryan McKinnon, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

Follow Zac Anderson and Sommer Brugal on Twitter: @zacjanderson@smbrugal.

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