Moms for Liberty's Florida roots have spread across country, influenced local school politics

When parents clashed over how to get through a pandemic, several movements took off, but none were as powerful and influential as Moms for Liberty. The conservative movement that started in Florida is now reshaping school content across much of the nation. It has since grown to 275 chapters.

"I am serving as the executive director of the organization, so it entails everything you can imagine trying to run a national organization with 115,000 women in 45 states," said co-founder Tina Descovich.

It caught fire opposing mask requirements in schools, and calling for the removal of books or lessons in schools they deem inappropriate or illegal.

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"The things Moms for Liberty is fighting is pornography in public schools, obscenity in school, teaching children scientific ideologies or non-scientific ideologies that people are saying is proven science which no one has agreed to yet," Descovich said.

She’s referring to the acceptance of gender transition in school. They’ve been a driving force in laws restricting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in early grades, and in drawing lines on what is and is not age appropriate in all grades.

For context, Descovich said she has no issue with showing Michelangelo’s David in elementary school or reading Orwell’s 1984 in high school.

"It’s an excellent book for high school students," she said.

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Descovich explained she has no problem with a high school teacher discussing sexual orientation if it’s an academic discussion about a law or court case, like the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

"I think it’s totally appropriate for a high school civics teacher to discuss sexual orientation in the context of Obergefell v. Hodges," she offered.

But she said they do not drive issues from the top down, leaving it to local chapters to decide what to challenge — which has sparked different clashes in different places.

For example, a chapter near Nashville, Tennessee flagged a first-grade book about seahorse reproduction on the grounds it describes seahorses’ sexual activity.

It also objected to 2nd-grade civil rights lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr., the March on Washington, and the story of Ruby Bridges who integrated Louisiana schools and was harassed for it at the age of six. 

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Among other complaints, the chapter called a teacher’s manual anti-American and flagged how the lessons describe the peaceful protests in Birmingham, and how police commissioner Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor maintained segregation and bullied Black people.

Descovich said it made a biracial child feel ashamed.

"He was embarrassed by the white part of him. The mom is like, ‘Where is this coming from?’" she said.

The chapter flagged the Ruby Bridges lesson in part for including the famous Norman Rockwell painting called "The Problem We All Live With," which depicts Ruby Bridges walking past the n-word painted on a wall.

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"The teachers manual had the children really dissecting their race in second grade and what was happening, instead of looking at the story of a courageous woman that stood up in a time in America that was dark and bad things were happening," Descovich said. "Would you teach your second-grader the n-word? I would not teach my children the n-word in second grade, nor do I send them to school to learn the n-word from our teacher."

On the other side of the debate, Jen Cousins leads the Florida Freedom to Read Project. It’s much smaller than Moms for Liberty, which Cousins ties to the pandemic.

"In the early days, when this was happening, it was about masks. They could draw huge crowds of people while people on our side didn’t feel comfortable going to board meetings because we didn’t want to get exposed to COVID," said Cousins.

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Moms for Liberty says it’s the message. Descovich claims conservatives neglected public education for decades until they stepped up.

"And they have said, ‘We are going to focus on growing school choice.’ I say, ‘No, no, no. We are not going to turn public education over to look at one way about the world,’" she offered.

Both sides say they’re fighting over parental choice, but have different thoughts on what that means, and what they find obscene.

"They can pick what their own kids can read, but they don’t get to decide what the rest of us want to read," said Cousins. "I have the ability to go into school and say restrict my kid from reading that. Restrict my kid from taking this lesson. Every parent has that right."

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"I think I’ve been pretty clear. If the books are obscene, they need to go," said Descovich. "In public school, for example, where they cannot opt their kids out that would be a real problem."

In the last election, Moms for Liberty said it endorsed in 500 school board races and 275 of those candidates won.