Are national ‘parental rights’ groups making decisions in your local school district?
On a stage in Troy, in front of dozens of parents, state leaders, school board members and candidates last month, GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon stood beside far-right activists from Florida and made a pledge.
“I pledge to advance policies that strengthen parental involvement and decision-making, increase transparency, defend against government overreach and secure parental rights at all levels of government,” she said on Oct. 14, speaking along with the Moms for Liberty members in the crowd.
If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. Talking points formulated by a far-right education advocacy group in Brevard County, Fla., more than 1,000 miles from the Detroit suburb of Troy, have been filtered down from national groups to local groups, creating the facade of a local movement, said Josh Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University.
“These parent groups — and these are real parents, and they’re really angry — are being given a lot of access to materials, some in-kind support and the talking points are being distributed,” Cowen said.
“Parental rights” is the sweeping term far-right activists use to sum up their initiatives to, among other goals, prohibit transgender girls from playing on the sports team that aligns with their identity; bar discussions of racism under the umbrella of critical race theory; ban books that they deem “pornographic,” which often discuss LGBTQ+ issues; and bar teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation with students.
These aren’t issues in every district. But national right-wing leaders have been urging parents to protest at their local school boards, recall school board members who don’t align with their values and then run for the school board themselves in the upcoming Nov. 8 election.
Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of global politics at Ohio State University, said national groups from both sides of the aisle have been getting involved in local politics for decades, but it becomes more mainstream when there are hot-button issues.
It’s hard to tell how involved these national groups are, Kogan said, because campaign finance laws are so decentralized and there isn’t a national dataset to see broadly the impact of these groups.
“All we have is anecdotes. It could be a new trend, or it could be something that has always happened and is just more salient now,” Kogan said.
Despite being difficult to track the impact of these groups, local education advocates say the national involvement is clear when looking at the candidates’ platforms.
“The reason that the boards have been so controversial is … that it is politically tied to every other race,” Cowen said. “The messaging in local school board races all the way up to the gubernatorial race is too consistent to be anything but an organized political structure.”
Michigan school board elections are nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean the local board is immune to the partisan politics of a midterm election. Democrats and progressive local leaders have seen how the Republicans and the right-wing have been successful in their tactics, and wonder if they will be forced to play the same game to keep up.
The amount of money being sent to Michigan for school board races is impressive. I've been here 25 years, and there's never been anything even remotely close to this.
“I certainly would rather see these school board races be very boring, low-cost, without a lot of political involvement. I would rather go back to the way it was, but I don’t see that happening,” said Nicole Kessler, one of the founding members of the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MIPASS), a grassroot group of parents from across the state that advocates school safety.
Kessler said she doesn’t think this is a problem that will be solved within one election cycle, so they are considering their options for the future.
“We need to be competitive to keep people who are affiliated with groups like this off of our school board,” she added.
Will groups like Moms for Liberty lose traction as quickly as they gained it?
Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), a nonpartisan organization designed to support school board members, said that answer might become more clear after the Nov. 8 election.
He thinks the far-right national groups will lose interest in local boards if Republican-backed candidates don’t win big like they’re hoping.
“If they lose, many will still want to keep an eye on things and disagree,” Wotruba said. “And hopefully as they watch they’ll learn that school board meetings are not very exciting and the topics that they deal with on a weekly basis are not any of the hot button issues.”
‘Moms for Liberty is building an army of parents across the country’
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan in March 2020, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Dixon’s opponent, closed schools for in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.
For the 2020-21 school year, there was a state mask mandate for in-person classes. But for the last two school years, decisions on masking have been up to county health departments or local school districts with most dropping requirements this winter.
Protests from anti-mask parents heated up last year, sometimes aggressively, at school board and county board meetings.
That’s when a number of national groups recognized the power that local school boards have and began to use board seats in local communities to push an agenda against masks, LGBTQ+ issues and critical race theory, a college-level theory that examines the systemic effects of white supremacy in America that is not taught in most Michigan K-12 schools. They’ve also been amping up pressure to ban books, especially those that discuss racism and LGBTQ+ issues.
Some school board members have made national news. Amy Facchinello, a Grand Blanc school board member, also was one of the 16 fake Michigan GOP electors for former President Donald Trump in 2020. Her posts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory prompted a protest from students and parents last year.
Moms for Liberty, the right-wing group that hosted the town hall event with Dixon in Troy earlier this month, is one of the leading national groups stoking culture wars in local school districts and urging parents to run for school board on the issues they have outlined.
The group was started in January 2021 by two self-described “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty,” Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich from Brevard County, Fla.
“We started Moms for Liberty because we saw parents were stepping up and speaking out during the pandemic,” Justice said during the Troy event. “People ask me often what are parents the most upset about? Is it the curriculum? Is it the closure of schools? And I think really beyond all of the single issues, it was that when we finally came to have our voices heard and spoke to our elected officials, they shut us down.”
Within less than two years, the movement has grown significantly and has ties to the Republican Party. Bridget Ziegler, who is married to Florida Republican Party Vice Chair Christian Ziegler, was initially credited as a co-founder of Moms for Liberty. The organization’s website does not list her as part of the executive team.
Their messaging spread far, with T-shirts and road signs proudly stating: “I do not co-parent with the government,” in communities nationwide.
Michigan has 12 Moms for Liberty county chapters, in Macomb, Oakland, Livingston, Wayne, Clinton, Kent, Isabella, Midland, Grand Traverse, Monroe, Branch and Washtenaw counties. Across the country, there are 240 chapters in 42 states with more than 100,000 members.
“Moms for Liberty is building an army of parents across the country. We are unified, we are educated and we are empowered. And we will not stop until we reclaim public education and right the ship of America,” Justice said.
The crowd erupted in applause before Justice looked into the audience and announced a “whole new class of politicians rising up to help save our country.”
In Michigan, there is plenty of opportunity to install new school board members. In fact, there are about 1,400 school board races in the Nov. 8 election, according to Wotruba.
Wotruba said that he worries that national and hyper-partisan politics will continue to seep into Michigan’s school board elections, changing how these boards were designed to function — as nonpartisan bodies.
And they’re using a lot of money to do so.
“The amount of money being sent to Michigan for school board races is impressive. I’ve been here 25 years, and there’s never been anything even remotely close to this,” Wotruba said.
Creating the network
Funding goes beyond campaign donations when it comes to local school board elections, which are relatively inexpensive under typical circumstances.
The real leverage that local candidates have by gaining the support of the far-right national groups and leaders is their ability to get their messaging out to a wider audience, Cowen said.
In December 2021, Lisa Hansen, who started the Moms for Liberty chapter in Midland, falsely claimed that the school district was providing litter boxes to students who “identify as cats” in a unisex bathroom.
Meshawn Maddock, the co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, shared the hoax on Facebook. After that, the conspiracy theory began circulating across the country as part of a push against accommodating trans students, with the help of big media figures like podcaster Joe Rogan.
An NBC News investigation found that some school districts, including the Colorado school district where the 1999 Columbine shooting happened, stockpile kitty litter for emergency preparedness kits in case of long lockdowns for active shooters — not because children are identifying as “furries.”
The latest culture war in schools has been over banning books from curricula and school libraries that the group deems “pornographic.” This is something that Dixon has spent most of her time on the campaign trail talking about in recent weeks.
Media Matters, a nonprofit progressive research and information center that monitors and analyzes conservative misinformation in media, obtained documentation showing that Moms for Liberty has created local chapter “books/library director” positions that would survey and evaluate school library book lists and challenge them within the district.
On top of having the support from one of Michigan’s top Republican Party leaders and Dixon, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, Moms for Liberty also has the backing of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a billionaire from Michigan who has been a longtime advocate and funder of school choice programs and charter schools. DeVos also was one of Dixon’s earliest and biggest donors.
Michigan chapters of Moms for Liberty have pushed for DeVos’ school-voucher plan, the Let MI Kids Learn initiative, which aims to create the Student Opportunity Scholarship Program to pay tuition and fees in K-12 public or private schools, homeschooling materials and online learning programs for students with financial need, and to make contributions to the program tax deductible. The Let MI Kids Learn PAC has raised over $8 million since 2021, with $1.6 million of that coming from DeVos.
Dixon supports the initiative. Whitmer vetoed similar legislation last year, arguing that it violated the Michigan Constitution.
The measure is not on the Nov. 8 ballot, as supporters failed to gather enough signatures by the deadline. However, it could be on the 2024 ballot. But first, the Legislature, which is currently GOP-controlled, can approve the initiative and the governor has no power to veto.
The Moms for Liberty national chapter, with support from the national Parental Rights Foundation, has also drafted resolutions members can introduce from the “school board to city council.” Moms for Liberty provides individualized resolutions for states with legislation that “defines and protects parental rights,” including Michigan.
The resolution states that the local school board “affirms our commitment to the fundamental rights of parents to direct the education of their children, including the right to play a central role in what it is their children are learning.”
I certainly would rather see these school board races be very boring, low-cost, without a lot of political involvement. I would rather go back to the way it was, but I don't see that happening.
Moms for Liberty isn’t the only national group that is campaigning on “parental rights.”
Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based pro-Trump group aimed at getting young Republicans involved in politics, has flagged 54 Michigan school districts on its “School Board Watchlist.” This time last year, the group had flagged just six Michigan districts.
The 1776 Project, a national political action committee dedicated to electing school board members nationwide “who want to reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride in American history,” has endorsed a number of far-right school board candidates in Michigan.
And leaders from FEC United, a parental rights group from Colorado, have attended events discussing hot-button education issues with local community members in Southeast Michigan.
Cowen said that so much interest from outside groups in Michigan school board races this year has had a big impact.
“I think that it’s going to take some settling down on the culture war stuff for the true grassroots organizing to come back,” Cowen said.