The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberals try to reclaim ‘parents’ rights’ from conservatives in education

Helen Arguello, right, and her daughter Quinn, 12, from Cedar Park, Tex., attend a rally in support of trans rights at the Texas Capitol on March 20. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)
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In the raging culture wars, conservative parents jumped out first with a robust agenda built around the defense of “parents’ rights.”

Now, seeking to apply some countervailing pressure, groups are coalescing on the left to resist conservative efforts to remove books from schools, end student LGBTQ clubs and restrict classroom discussions of race and gender. Experts and advocates say the liberals — some forming groups nationally and others in states and local communities — increasingly are in a strong position to push back.

Liberal groups with names such as “Stop Moms for Liberty” are campaigning for like-minded school board candidates, lobbying legislators and training parents to show up at school board meetings. They host Zooms and Facebook pages where parents can commiserate and strategize.

The burst of activity comes at a time when education activists enjoy enormous sway on the political right. When Moms for Liberty holds a national summit later this month, for instance, it will include speeches from at least four GOP presidential candidates, including former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It took a while for many to engage, said Isabell Moore, public schools community organizer for Down Home NC, a North Carolina advocacy group.

“Most of us are kind of just going about our daily lives, showing up for teacher appreciation day and volunteering for the PTA. Our public schools are a fact — we love them, we care about them," she said. There have always been parents involved, she said, but “it was not ‘til these attacks that the majority of everyday parents were like, 'We really need to jump in and take this to the next level.’”

Liberal education advocacy ticked up last year and has been gaining steam since, says Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who recently published “Cancel Wars,” a book about cultural and free speech debates in education. First it was on the local level, and then with some larger national umbrella organizations.

“There is a definite acceleration of organizations and mobilizing on the left in response to the book bans and the anti-LGBTQ efforts,” she said. “It is significantly on the rise.”

The conservative groups were initially formed by parents angry about pandemic restrictions such as mandatory masks. Later, they turned their focus to policies and curriculums aimed at racial justice that they saw as promoting racist ideas. More recently, their attention has trained on issues of gender identity as they worked to ban discussions in classrooms and bar transgender students from playing sports. And many have campaigned for school voucher programs that allow parents to pay for private school with tax dollars.

They have notched success after success on the local, state and national levels, rallying around the idea of parents rights. They helped push the issue into the GOP presidential primary, pass state legislation and made inroads in local areas by winning school board contests — in some cases taking control of school boards.

Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty — which has 120,000 members spread out over 285 chapters — expressed surprise that any parent would oppose their views.

“I don’t understand how any parent can be against fundamental parental rights,” she said. She said parents have a right to direct their children’s education but also said it’s wrong to insist that schools teach material she and others find offensive or outside academic standards, such as LBGTQ content.

Last fall, conservative candidates won 39 percent of 1,834 contests in which candidate ideology could be discerned, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The Post classified candidates’ ideology based on data from Ballotpedia, which tracks many school board contests, as well as from endorsements made by conservative groups Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project, by DeSantis, and ratings assigned by the liberal group Red, Wine and Blue.

The Post found that liberal candidates had more success in politically conservative counties, winning 35 percent of the races, than conservatives had in liberal counties, where they won just 20 percent of the races.

Some of those successes were helped by groups on the left. Caught off guard at the start, activists began organizing last year and now have groups in places across the country, many of which are affiliated with national organizations that provide support and in some cases, paid staff.

Upcoming battles

Among the coming battles: another round of school board elections, with about 9,000 school districts in 35 states holding contests this year, according to Ballotpedia.

Red, Wine and Blue, a liberal group that focuses on suburban moms, now has paid organizers in three states with school board races this year — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — as well as in North Carolina and Michigan. It counts about 400,000 supporters across 50 states, including people who have signed up for email or text messages or joined a Facebook group.

“A big goal is to flip back seats that were won by extremists in 2021 just to stop the chaos,” said Katie Paris, the group’s founder. The other side, she said, is “not winning as much as one would think based on how much they have dominated headlines over the last two years and been allowed to misrepresent parents."

Looking ahead to 2024, Down Home NC is already working now to recruit candidates for the school board races, earlier than ever before, and plans a candidate training session for July.

In the meantime, many groups are working to train like-minded parents to attend and speak at school board meetings, something conservative groups have been doing since the height of the pandemic. To face them, Red, Wine and Blue has put more than 11,000 people through one-hour “troublemaker trainings."

This spring in North Carolina, a group called HEAL Together held its first two sessions teaching parents to speak at school board meetings and track school board activity. They drew a combined 160 people from 32 out of the state’s 100 counties, and another 160 are registered for a training this week. They hope to train at least two people from each county this year.

One goal, said Moore, the North Carolina organizer: “Not letting Moms for Liberty be the only voices in the room."

Defense of Democracy, a liberal parents’ group headquartered in New York, holds weekly video meetings open to its 2,000 active volunteers across 40 chapters in which leaders train members how to run for school board, win media coverage and lead peaceful protests. By the end of the summer, the group hopes to persuade at least one member in each chapter to begin regularly attending their local school board meetings.

“Maybe they want to say something nice about a teacher, or they can just sit there quietly,” founder Karen Svoboda, a 52-year-old mother and stepmother to seven children in the Wappingers Central School District.

The organization also promotes a pledge asking political candidates and elected officials to protect “our public schools, our children, and our country” by defending the “civil rights of [everyone] regardless of race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or anything else.”

A year-old group with the unsubtle name Stop Moms for Liberty encourages its members to review school board agendas and track board votes. When they find decisions they believe will prove unpopular or controversial, they post on social media, contact reporters and notify advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, said founder Liz Mikitarian. The group also provides resources for members interested in running for school board themselves. And it hopes to send 50 to 60 people to protest the upcoming Moms for Liberty gathering in Philadelphia.

The group took off, recruiting 3,000 members in the first two months, Mikitarian said.

“I just couldn’t be quiet anymore," she said, “and I guess a lot of other people felt the same.”

Liberals have some public support behind them. A Fox News poll in March found 71 percent of registered voters “extremely” or “very” concerned about book restrictions imposed by local school boards. And a March survey by USA Today/Ipsos found 72 percent of Americans in support of “teaching the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the United States in public schools.”

Conservatives, though, can claim support on other matters. A Washington Post-KFF poll taken late last year, for instance, found more than 6 in 10 adults said trans girls and women should not be allowed to compete in girls’ and women’s sports, including professional, college, high school and youth levels. And it found more than 2 in 3 adults said it was inappropriate to discuss trans identity with students in elementary grades. (The poll found people divided when asked about middle school, but supportive of these discussions in high school.) More recent surveys have found similar results.

Making connections

Some of the work underway is simply about linking liberal parents with one another.

Stop Moms for Liberty has dozens of Facebook groups across 27 states. Some are at the district level, some at the state level, and there’s one big national forum. It sees itself as a connector, helping more than 9,000 members trade notes on strategy for campaigns or book battles.

Red, Wine and Blue runs a “banned book club," where parents discuss books that have been challenged in schools and libraries. It also hosts “ask anything” events over Zoom to discuss sensitive topics such as what it’s like to parent a transgender child or raise children of color in majority-White suburbs.

Svoboda also hopes to connect people using a new podcast. She said the show, which launched this month, will interview “people who are concerned about the rise of Christian nationalism and the pressures put on our school system.”One of the first guests will be a Florida teacher who is being investigated by the state for showing students a film with a gay character.

In North Carolina, Moore recalled sitting at a table in Craven County for about six hours outside a youth basketball event in January, talking with many parents about schools. “Not one parent brought up: ‘I want to see more books banned.’ They want school bus driver positions filled,” she said. “We feel like we need to shift the conversation publicly back onto the issues that the majority of public school parents really care about.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.