Amy Snead learned about Florida-based Moms for Liberty last year from a friend who had taken part in successful anti-masking efforts in a Florida school district. It was an effort that Snead, a 40-year-old mother of four, hoped to replicate in her small rural community in Bedford County, Virginia.
Now Snead chairs her own Moms for Liberty chapter, which recently lobbied for a district measure that would require that parents be notified when their children check out school library books and require teachers to submit the year's reading list for parental approval. The measure is up for board vote in August.
"We've been able to advocate for policies like that, and to me, they're a win-win," said Snead, whose four boys range in age from 7 to 16. "What might be right for some parents, might not be right for other parents."
Snead is one of the thousands of moms who've fueled Moms for Liberty's rising national profile since the group launched 18 months ago. It now boasts more than 200 chapters with 100,000 members in 40 states. Born of frustrations over mask and vaccine mandates, the group has tapped concerns about "parental rights" and "indoctrination" of kids to gain influence while inspiring armies of moms nationwide to take up its crusade.
"We do believe in some ways we are war moms," said Tiffany Justice, who founded Moms for Liberty in Brevard County in Florida along with fellow Florida mothers Tina Descovich and Bridget Ziegler. "We're fighting for the life of America."
The purportedly grassroots, rapidly growing group has been embraced by the GOP establishment - especially in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed policies espoused by Moms for Liberty, including laws banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity until after third grade and restricting race-based teaching and training in schools and universities.
"It's about putting parents back in the driver's seat of public education," said Descovich, a former Brevard County school board member. "What we saw was parents being ignored and their concerns not being taken seriously. We thought, let's start something to help parents organize and use the tools we've learned from serving on school boards."
Critics have assailed tactics employed by some Moms for Liberty members, calling the group divisive and counterproductive. Some question its aims and grassroots origins given the high-profile conservative political ties that have helped accelerate its rise into the national spotlight.
But as a new academic year approaches, leaders say Moms for Liberty's power is only growing as energized moms gather under the "parental rights" banner, working to sway school board races and district policies nationwide.
"Before Moms for Liberty, when I called legislators, nobody would ever return a call," said Kourtney O'Hara, who chairs the group's chapter in Lexington County, South Carolina. "Now they do call back. Moms for Liberty was really able to open doors to get those conversations."
Heading into this year's school board elections, Moms for Liberty chapters have endorsed 45 Florida candidates and more than 200 nationwide, and the group's political action committee received a $50,000 gift from Publix Super Markets heiress Julie Fancelli.
While Moms for Liberty has promoted itself as nonpartisan, its inaugural "Joyful Warriors Summit," held last month in Tampa, Florida, featured prominent Republican speakers including DeSantis, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson.
"They're certainly partisan," said Florida state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. "They're not supporting Democrats. They are an arm of the Republican Party of Florida."
Smith and others have also expressed concern that the group is stirring up anti-LGBTQ sentiment, while also standing in the way of nuanced conversations and lessons surrounding people of color.
The group's overall push for policies that silence the LGBTQ community has "created an unsafe environment," Smith said. "Teachers are afraid to help their students, and that fear is well-founded: You can have a Moms for Liberty activist sue the school because of something a teacher allegedly said in a classroom, which can ruin their career and be exploited by Gov. DeSantis. They've turned our classrooms into political battlefields, and vulnerable kids will be left isolated, unsupported and afraid."
Moms 'were closest to the problem'
Moms for Liberty's roots lie in several Florida counties where school board majorities had promoted policies, not in line with a conservative populace that had largely supported former President Donald Trump.
Descovich had been unseated as a Brevard County school board member in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. Seeking ways to focus her energies, she began meeting with Republican activist Marie Rogerson and others to read the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence line by line.
"The first night, we had 10 people show up," Descovich said. "We met biweekly, like a book club. We spent nine months on the Declaration alone."
She connected with two other Florida women she knew through conservative education circles - Justice, a former school board member in Indian River County, and Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member who, like Descovich, had served as president of the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members.
The three began discussing how they could help parents organize to fight masking requirements and more and eventually, Moms for Liberty was born.
"Ninety percent of the time, it was moms we saw coming before the school board, moms having to leave jobs to teach their kids at the table," Descovich said. "They were closest to the problem. So we knew it was moms who would be most upset by what was going on."
The group initially operated out of a bedroom in Descovich's home and her sister's dining room. Ziegler, whose husband, Christian Ziegler, is vice chair of the Florida Republican Party, soon stepped down as director of program development, citing other commitments. Rogerson took her place.
Descovich said they'd initially conceived the group as a Florida entity but decided otherwise as they began fielding calls from around the country.
While chapters operate autonomously and decide what issues are important, she said, common themes have emerged in the wake of mask and vaccine mandates, including the teaching of gender and sexuality, as well as issues of race and discrimination.
That's what spurred O'Hara, of the South Carolina chapter, to action - a big step for someone whose previous political involvement had been minimal.
"I think I had voted twice in my life before getting involved with Moms for Liberty," she said.
O'Hara said some parents were shut down at school board meetings when it came to raising such issues. The chapter is now working with legislators to pass a parental rights bill.
"We're not going on a witch hunt," said O'Hara, a 34-year-old mother of three kids, ages 6 to 14. "We just want that relationship where, like when I was growing up, when you messed up in school, your parents would hear about it. Somewhere that got lost along the way."
In Virginia, Snead's chapter successfully advocated for changes in how the district conducted board meetings, which now rotate between the district's three high schools to accommodate parents in the geographically large area, with extended speaking times.
"We're the parents who've been involved in school all along as PTA moms planning teacher appreciation week or volunteering to make copies," Snead said. "But when decisions were being made that didn't align with ours, it raised awareness of the need to speak out."
In Kitsap County, Washington, a largely naval community just across the Puget Sound from Seattle, some books have come under fire by members - among them "Gender Queer," a graphic memoir about the author's journey to discover their own sexuality and gender identity.
Chapter chair Joy Gjersvold, a stay-at-home mom whose children are 18 and 21, called the book "pornographic," She said one high school teacher had brought in a personal copy and chosen a passage for students to write about "with no warning to parents," despite district assurances that the book would only be kept in the library.
"There was no consideration given that parents' religious beliefs might say they don't want them reading things like that," Gjersvold said. "We're not trying to ban books. We're just trying to have it be age-appropriate."
The chapter is countering with a Moms for Libraries committee, a nationally led effort that works with publishers, such as Christian-oriented Good and True Media and Carson's American Cornerstone Institute, to donate books to interested schools and teachers.
Gjersvold, 49, said Moms for Liberty is her first real foray into civic participation. While she sees her mission as keeping school boards accountable, she said most of her time is spent ensuring parents have the information they need to advocate for their kids.
Bruce Richards, a longtime former board member and president for Central Kitsap Schools, said district efforts to be inclusive of LGBTQ students and those of color became increasingly problematic once the Moms for Liberty chapter launched.
Suddenly, he said, certain books came under fire. So did posters reading "It's OK to be different" and Pride Month features about gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk during morning announcements.
"They had issues with books in our library, and it seemed like they knew specifically what books to look for," said Richards, who retired in December.
Some books, it turned out, had been stocked by librarians without following the proper process - but he said all were approved once they did. The district had one copy of "Gender Queer" among its three high schools.
"It's not like it was in our elementary schools," Richards said. "But they were on a mission."
A rise boosted by rightwing media
Moms for Liberty immediately made an impact in national conservative circles. The group was featured on "The Rush Limbaugh Show" in January 2021, just four weeks after the group was created - and two weeks before its national launch.
Within the next month, both Breitbart and "Tucker Carlson Tonight" also featured Moms for Liberty, and group representatives since then have appeared at least 16 times on Fox News and 14 times on Steve Bannon's "War Room."
"Major rightwing elements were embracing Moms for Liberty at a time when the group barely existed," said Olivia Little, senior researcher at Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group that has been tracking the group.
Maurice Cunningham, a retired associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of "Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization," called Moms for Liberty "a prefabricated front" representing GOP interests, especially those of DeSantis.
He noted that multiple individuals and organizations featured at the group's Tampa summit are aligned with the rightwing Council for National Policy, including DeVos, Heritage Foundation, Leadership Institute and Turning Point USA.
Descovich said she personally called "The Rush Limbaugh Show" and others dozens of times to win publicity.
Justice, too, rejected the criticism.
"They just can't fathom that a group of women could come together and make this happen," she said.
Moms for Liberty has many historic predecessors, said Adam Laats, a professor of education and history at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. He said Moms for Liberty evokes conservative 20th-century movements that embraced affiliation with women and/or tried to harness broad concerns or fears that ultimately passed.
Laats cited the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as antibusing activist Irene McCabe, a white Detroit-area housewife who earned national attention for her 1970s fight against desegregation, including a mothers' march to spotlight the issue.
Moms for Liberty reflects a growing pattern of national actors penetrating school board elections with bigger aims in mind, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.
"Part of what happens when national actors get involved is that issues get redefined and the polarization of national politics seeps into these local arenas," said Henig, author of "Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics." "What we're seeing to some extent is national actors seeing education as a convenient issue for mobilizing people in more general elections."
Laats said the Moms for Liberty brand could ultimately be tarnished by its most extreme members or chapters. A loose-knit group with 100,000 members has 100,000 potential liabilities, he said, and as the group shifts to ideologically narrower issues, chances increase that someone will say or do something politically poisonous.
He cited a 1974 fight against books introduced to the West Virginia state education curriculum reflecting people of color. Angry, working-class-driven opposition spiraled out of control, and schools were firebombed and dynamited.
"A non-hierarchical group is great when claiming numbers," he said, "but it can be a recipe for disaster."
'A chapter in every county'
Moms for Liberty chapters have occasionally drawn headlines for their tactics.
Last year in New York, Suffolk County members urged students to refuse wearing masks in protest of policies they described as "segregation." Florida's Indian River County chapter questioned whether words like "isolation" and "quarantine" were too scary for fourth graders to spell, and in Tennessee, Williamson County's chapter said a textbook with an illustration of mating seahorses was inappropriate for elementary schools.
Other behavior is more troubling. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu chastised a local chapter for offering a $500 "bounty" to anyone who caught instructors violating a new law restricting classroom instruction about race.
In Florida, a Brevard County board member said chapter members harassed her and picketed her home. Earlier this year, Smith, one of three LGBTQ members of the Florida Legislature, said he attended a Seminole County school board meeting where LGBTQ supporters planned to urge the board to issue a proclamation recognizing Pride Month.
"Moms for Liberty activists showed up and started calling them 'groomers,'" Smith said. "It was just despicable behavior."
One activist, he said, later posted photos online of a student attendee wearing a rainbow skirt while hurling a similar insult at Smith.
"It's really disgusting how low these people will go to promote their agenda," Smith said.
Descovich said the group isn't bent on chaos or on creating problems, citing the group's embrace of the term "joyful" as its modus operandi.
"We try to reiterate with all members that we are going to fight like heck but do it with a smile on our face," she said. "When a member does something that isn't perfectly joyful, we're not going to discard them. We will work with them to help them express themselves in a little more joyful way."
Nevertheless, the group has assumed an increasingly caustic tone on social media, dismissing some teachers and groups representing them as the "K-12 cartel," denying that transgender children exist and painting LGBTQ teachers as "groomers" aiming to sexualize children.
Descovich said the organization has already scored wins in school board races around the country, with two group-endorsed candidates taking seats in Kenosha, Wisconsin, early this year. In New York, she said, Moms for Liberty's nine chapters endorsed about 70 candidates in late spring elections, more than 40 of whom won their races.
"We hope to have a parental 'bill of rights' in every state in the country and ultimately a chapter in every county in America," she said.
Others say it's not clear whether villainizing teachers and undercutting inclusion efforts is a promising strategy.
A Ballotpedia analysis of more than 300 school board races in Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin in April found that candidates who took positions against pandemic health measures or the teaching of race or gender issues won at half the rate of those who supported or took no stance on such issues.
Colin Booth, legislative communications director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, doubts Moms for Liberty will see future growth in the state.
"New Hampshire has some of the best schools in the country, and the level to which Moms for Liberty has been meddling in those schools, people aren't happy about it," he said. "I think you'll see a major backlash this fall."
Meanwhile, Booth said the state is enduring reputational harm "because of these extreme far-right activists' willingness to put a torch to public education for a very short-term political gain. We're already losing a generation of talented young teachers because they're terrified of what could happen to their careers, and to them personally."
Moms for Liberty leaders said they aren't worried about their critics.
"We know that good educators want parents involved, that their greatest success is when they are," Descovich said. "I think the long-term effect is going to be wonderful. It's only going to improve the public education system."
USA Today Network reporters Jeffrey Graham and Zac Anderson contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Conservative Moms for Liberty takes on school boards across US