By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Moms for Liberty, the school grievance league with close ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis, has changed public education in Florida – and not for the better, many parents and educators say.
In DeSantis’s war on “woke,” a political term that refers to the belief in systemic racism or other injustices, the Moms for Liberty are his foot soldiers. They’re a force in Republican politics akin to Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, who called herself “a hockey mom” and said the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is “lipstick.”
DeSantis urges them on. “You just gotta be willing to stand by your convictions,” he said at the Moms’ first summit meeting in Tampa last year. “Now’s not the time to let them grind you down. You gotta stand up and you gotta fight.”
The Florida governor and other Republican presidential hopefuls are expected at the group’s gathering June 29-July 2 in Philadelphia. Moms for Liberty claims almost 300 chapters in 45 states; Florida, where it incorporated in January 2021, has chapters in at least 32 counties.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties all have chapters. The Palm Beach chapter’s Facebook page describes Moms for Liberty as “dedicated to the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
Yet there are signs the Moms for Liberty, who spin a folksy narrative about how they’re “joyful warriors” battling for children’s souls, may be losing steam in Florida.
LAW CENTER CRITIQUE
This comes as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labeled Moms for Liberty “anti-government” in its recent report, “The Year in Hate and Extremism 2022.” The SPLC has promoted civil rights and called out regressive groups for over 50 years.
Moms for Liberty members “combat what they consider the ‘woke indoctrination’ of children by advocating for book bans in school libraries and endorsing candidates for public office that align with the group’s views,” the SPLC report states.
“They also use their multiple social media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the [U.S.] Department of Education, advance conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community,” the report says.
The group’s mission is “to destroy public education,” said Jen Cousins, a co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project. “They want to see everything moved to vouchers and private schools.”
MOMS FOR LIBERTY RESPOND
Moms for Liberty did not grant Florida Bulldog an interview, but released this statement from co-founders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich in response to the SPLC report:
“Our organization is devoted to empowering parents to be a part of their child’s public school education.
“That is our fundamental goal, which began just two years ago when teachers’ unions locked students out of schools during the pandemic. Empowering parents continues to be our mission today and that has fueled our organization’s growth – like wildfire to now 45 states in the country.
“Name-calling parents who want to be a part of their child’s education as ‘hate groups’ or ‘bigoted’ just further exposes what this battle is all about: Who fundamentally gets to decide what is taught to our kids in school – parents or government employees?
“We believe that parental rights do not stop at the classroom door and no amount of hate from groups like this is going to stop that,” the co-founders stated.
VOTING, COURT, DISTRICT LOSS
For all their apparent clout, the Florida Moms lost a bellwether school board race in Brevard County and a court battle over social media posts in Clearwater. They had Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” yanked off bookshelves in Pinellas County schools, but after an uproar the district restored the novel to its curriculum.
“They’re not casting a vision of what they want; they’re just going after what they don’t want and that’s not sustainable because it’s exhausting,” said Damaris Allen, executive director of Coral Gables-based Families for Strong Public Schools. “I think people want to look forward to the future, something they can invest in and a direction they can see their kids flourishing in,” she said.
When a Fox News “exclusive” identified 14 school board members around the state the Moms for Liberty and DeSantis want to defeat in 2024, Jennifer Jenkins didn’t worry about being one of them.
“I feel like that was a marketing thing. I won’t be surprised if it never comes up again,” said Jenkins, who in 2020 replaced Descovich on the Brevard County School Board in a staunchly Republican district. Months later, Descovich and like-minded activists officially launched Moms for Liberty.
Jenkins said she believes their influence is waning. “For the past year, only one or two of them show up at our meetings,” she said. “The public is tired of them.”
PAYING A PRICE
Jenkins, a school speech pathologist, paid dearly for her upset victory over Descovich. Her family was threatened, and she was forced to defend herself from a bogus report of child abuse to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The Moms and their supporters “tormented that poor woman so bad,” Cousins said. “They burned her grass, they had a rally outside her daughter’s bedroom window.”
Cousins, who lives in Orange County, helps train parents from other school districts to beat the Moms at their own game. “Our aim is to try to keep them in check,” she said.
Jenkins remains defiant – but she won’t run for reelection in 2024. She’s weighing a bid for higher office and hasn’t yet announced her candidacy.
“This opportunity came to me,” she said. “I’m more than happy to be a warrior and an advocate but I’m not gonna do it on this school board with a supermajority of Moms for Liberty members.”
Elisabeth “Beth” Weinstein of Tarpon Springs is another mother of public school kids who fought the Moms and won. A marketing director by profession, she’s a longtime pro-choice activist who entered the Moms for Liberty fray when asked by Indivisible, a national anti-MAGA group.
“Their actions are so abhorrent that it has necessitated a reaction. It has brought people off the sidelines,” Weinstein said. “A lot of groups are recognizing one another and coordinating.”
Many of their battles are conducted online by trading word and meme salvos back and forth. Comments aren’t confined to local school board issues.
The SPLC report quotes Eulalia Jimenez, chair of Miami’s Moms for Liberty chapter, writing this Instagram post after the school massacre in Uvalde,TX: “The children are confused … because of these insane agendas that are being shoved down their throats. .. Even the shooter – what, an 18-year-old transgender boy trying to be a girl?”
In one fight that landed in state court in Clearwater, Moms supporter David Happe sought an injunction against Weinstein, claiming she doxxed white conservatives by revealing their private information.
“All we were doing was taking public posts and tagging them and saying what schools they were with, none of which is illegal,” Weinstein said.
She said she would grab screenshots of the Moms’ “bigoted, racist and transphobic” public posts before they were taken down, then repost. “They seem to forget that they exist in a world where I screen-shoot everything,” Weinstein said.
Happe eventually lost; a court document shows his claim was dismissed for insufficient evidence. “They have no legal expectation of privacy on social media,” Weinstein noted.
WHO ARE BIGGEST DONORS?
Moms for Liberty is a nonprofit that says it’s funded by membership fees and proceeds from T-shirt sales.The group’s 2021 IRS tax form 990 lists $370,029 in revenue and $163,382 in expenses.
But it may have other resources. The Washington Post reported that Republican megadonors such as Charles Koch funded local groups like Moms for Liberty that opposed school mask mandates.
Also, the Moms’ own PAC for supporting candidates in the 2022 midterms was largely funded by a $50,000 gift from Julie Fancelli, according to the SPLC report. The Publix grocery chain heiress had financed a rally just before the Jan. 6, 2021 raid on the Capitol.
Moms for Liberty’s 2021 Schedule B tax appendix doesn’t identify its biggest donors, individuals who contributed a total of $150,000 in these amounts: $100,000, $20,000, $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000. In the space for their names and addresses it says “N/A.”
Asked for contributors’ names, Moms for Liberty spokesperson Sierra Kostick sent Florida Bulldog an IRS rule change that allows nonprofits to withhold this information.
Allen, of Families for Strong Public Schools, said she fears that with all the drama surrounding Moms for Liberty, critically important issues are overlooked.
“There are a lot of potentially unintended consequences of their actions that I’m most concerned about,” Allen said. “They’re having devastating effects on our public schools. We’re losing an enormous amount of teachers and kids are suffering and their future is being put at stake because of this.”