TAMPA, Fla. — Long described as boring, orderly and low-key, school board meetings have recently become epicenters for emotional outbursts and animated disputes over school mask policies, library book access and classroom curriculum.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that school board elections are shaping up to be just as intense.
“Every radio and television station is talking about school board races, we’ve never seen that,” said Florida political analyst Dr. Susan McManus.
Much of that attention can be traced to grassroots, conservative-leaning moms' group Moms for Liberty. The organization, born just two years ago amid the pandemic by a few small-town Florida moms angered by mask mandates, has become a major conservative force with chapters in 37 states and a membership roster of 100,000, according to its founders.
Touting parents' rights as its primary focus, members have been criticized for pushing conservative values in classrooms by challenging books offered in school libraries they dub as too sexual and curriculum, members claim, contains critical race theory and is anti-American.
The group also hasn’t been shy about its mission to win school board elections and run them.
“We are changing the direction of this country,” co-founder Tina Descovich said before a crowd of 500 or so during the organization’s first national summit in Tampa recently.
There, nearly half a dozen Moms for Liberty members were running for school boards for the first time, some with children who don’t even attend public school.
Rachel Kirby pulled her children out of public school during the pandemic. She’s running for the first time in Orange County. She said she’s concerned about critical race theory creeping into the curriculum and what she describes as “sexualization in the curriculum.”
“I know we have laws for these things but we need to have people to make sure they’re being enforced,” Kirby said.
Monty Floyd’s children are home-schooled. He’s hoping to take a seat on Hernando County’s school board with a specific interest in how his district spends money.
“Our school boards are spending money like drunken sailors but drunken sailors don’t push the books we’re seeing in the library, which is completely age-inappropriate,” he said.
While school board elections are non-partisan, even the group’s members say Moms for Liberty is aiming to change the political balance of power on school campuses.
“We are political. Everything is political these days,” said Aly Legge, a self-described ‘constitutionally conservative’ mom of five. She’s also a first-time school board candidate in Hillsborough County.
“They’re trying to make us believe that our freedoms come from government and that’s not true. Our freedoms come from God or your creator, whoever you believe in,” she said.
Legge is one of ten school board candidates in Florida recently endorsed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who, along with his wife, spoke at the Moms for Liberty conference recognizing the group’s rapidly growing political influence.
“Our system is for educating kids, not indoctrinating kids. Now is not the time to be a shrinking violet. You’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to fight,” Desantis told the enthusiastic crowd of like-minded parents.
While it’s unknown exactly how many Moms for Liberty members are running for school boards nationwide, co-founder Tiffany Justice said, “hundreds and hundreds.”
The group has already endorsed 200 school board candidates, 45 in Florida.
But critics are concerned about how Moms for Liberty's victories on school boards could impact public education.
“I firmly believe that if these people get in, it's going to be eventually the end of public education,” said Lisa Schurr of Support our Schools in Sarasota County. The group was founded by liberal moms as a counter to Moms for Liberty’s more conservative agenda.
“These races aren’t just about the school board. “It’s about a radical right-wing taking over local power and working to dismantle public education,” Schurr said.
Christian Ziegler is vice chair of Florida’s Republican Party. His wife is an original co-founder of Moms for Liberty and currently seeking her third term on Sarasota’s school board.
Ziegler believes the Moms for Liberty effect is strong and will prove to be a strong asset to the GOP in the midterms and beyond.
“These are people who have never been involved and they’re getting activated, informed and I think they’ll show up at the ballot box in waves,” he said.
But not before they show up for themselves.
“If everything was going well and we didn’t have these issues. None of us would be running right,” said Rachel Kirby.