'Fight this battle piece by piece': Concerned moms are shaping culture wars and 2024 race

WASHINGTON – In recent years, debates have raged over how much oversight parents should have in their child's education, ranging from what books they read to instruction over gender identity and other issues.

Moms are at the center of these clashes.

Moms for Liberty, an organization founded in 2021, says on its website that it's dedicated to “unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

But the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the organization as an extremist group over accusations of harassing community members, advancing misinformation about LGBTQ+ people and fighting to remove materials about diversity from classrooms. Leadership of Moms for Liberty denies such accusations.

But resistance groups have formed against Moms for Liberty. One such group, Defense of Democracy, founded by two moms last year, is aimed at advocating for “a public education system that supports and enhances our shared experiences," fighting against efforts to target local schools, libraries and other spaces for kids.

Here’s an inside look at the battle between the two groups and how it's shaping the 2024 race.

'We have to fight this battle piece by piece'

Before Tiffany Justice co-founded Moms for Liberty, she served on the school board of the Indian River County, Florida, school district during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were implementing masks and lockdowns.

“I watched as parents were coming and saying, ‘I'm very concerned about my child. My child isn't learning well. They're suffering from forced quarantining or masking,’ and it just became very apparent that government schools – our public schools in America – didn't really give a hoot what parents said or did or what their concerns were,” Justice, a mother of four, told USA TODAY.

After her term ended, she co-founded Moms for Liberty along with two other moms, Tina Descovich and Bridget Ziegler.

“Every parent has the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their child," she said.

“And what parents want when it comes to schools is transparency and accountability," she added.

Darcy Schoening, a 41-year-old who chairs the Moms for Liberty local chapter in El Paso County, Colorado, told USA TODAY she joined the group about a year and a half ago because she’s "scared" about what her children might be taught in school.

“I see the public schools as the forum where the fight for democracy (and) the fight for constitutional rights is really playing out ... whether it's, you know, reviewing the curriculum, whether it's looking at the books that are in schools, whatever may be the case, we have to fight this battle piece by piece to try to save our kids,” Schoening said.

Schoening's children do not attend public school.

While Moms for Liberty says it promotes "teaching the principles of liberty in our homes and schools," it has garnered the most attention for becoming a conservative force in school board races across the country and its wider efforts to restrict student access to certain books about race, gender, sexual orientation and more.

Members of the group have also pushed against a slate of COVID-19 mitigation measures such as lockdowns and masking, even as infections have increased across the country.

Jeanie Rush, a member of Moms for Liberty in Colorado, told USA TODAY she is against social and emotional learning, critical race theory and diversity efforts in schools, and that’s what connected her to Moms for Liberty.

Social and emotional learning is a wide-reaching term used to describe practices that range from managing emotions to developing empathy and other skills.

“The Moms for Liberty people I've met, I'm so proud of because they stood up to different school boards and said, the books the materials that you are giving young children, you don't give,” Rush, a 73-year-old grandmother to six children, said.

On the 2024 campaign trail, Moms for Liberty message spreads

Moms for Liberty has forged ties to high-level GOP politicians and managed to tap into conservative funding networks, said Michael Feola, an associate professor at the government & law department at Lafayette College.

"More broadly, they've secured a high-profile platform to push their radical vision of 'parent's rights' into the forefront of public conversations," Feola said.

In July, Moms for Liberty held its national summit in Pennsylvania that drew 2024 Republican frontrunner former President Donald Trump and other White House hopefuls, including businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis − a sign of the group’s growing influence on the national campaign trail.

The candidates lauded Moms for Liberty to a crowd of supporters at the event, in addition to criticizing trans people and critical race theory, positions Moms for Liberty has also embraced.

“In school board races, PTA meetings and town halls across the nation, you have taught the radical left Marxists and communists a lesson they will never forget. ... Don’t mess with America’s moms,” Trump said. He later called the Moms for Liberty “the best thing that has happened to America.”

DeSantis, who has three kids under the age of 10, said the “most powerful political force in this country” are moms and added that "I believe if we do it right, 2024 is going to be the year when the parents across this country finally fight back."

The governor has made Florida schools the stomping ground for educational culture wars, signing bills aimed at prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and implementing a bill of rights for parents in the state.

Ramaswamy, Haley and other GOP candidates, including those running for U.S. Senate, have also signed the “Parent Pledge” from the group, vowing their support for the group's goals.

Feola explained that schools are a "nearly perfect target for culture warriors as schools encapsulate the fears that drive conservative messaging: racial change, shifting gender/sexual norms, and cultural change."

"It's a perfect storm of factors: fears over a nation moving leftward; fears over a society that has 'lost its way'; fears over elites forcing their will on citizens; and fears over children – typically presented as a uniquely vulnerable population," Feola said.

'It's hard to sit back and not do something about it': Defense of Democracy fights back

Karen Svoboda, a 52-year-old based in New York, told USA TODAY she founded Defense of Democracy last year to fight back against school board members endorsed by Moms for Liberty. She said one of her organization’s main tenets is the “protection and advocacy for public schools and pro-democracy candidates and libraries.”

Svoboda said Moms for Liberty’s efforts to exclude certain books from a child’s curriculum is “cruel, not only to the child, but to the entire country because you are denying somebody the ability to be a well-rounded and informed citizen.”

Book bans, among other efforts taken by Moms for Liberty, are also what pulled Erica Watkins, a 36-year-old mom of two kids based in Oklahoma, into the group, where she is now a regional director.

Watkins condemned Moms for Liberty's stances on critical race theory and how she says the group embraces a harmful narrative around children who undergo gender-affirming care. She also said that as a veteran, she believes in freedom and differences in ideas.

“We have marginalized groups ... queer community and people of color that are being targeted by religious extremists in our country,” Watkins said. “And as somebody that was served and sent overseas to fight against religious extremism in other countries, it's hard to sit back and not do something about it.”

Candidates running for offices ranging from local school boards to congressional seats have signed the organization’s pledge to acknowledge individuals from all walks of life and the education system.

Renay Zamora, a 56-year-old mother with two children based in Tennessee, said that amid anti-LGBTQ legislation being passed in her state, the tensions in school board meetings and book bans, she was feeling helpless and joined the group to fight back against those efforts.

“We want people to attend the school board meetings, see what's happening because this is a very microcosmic kind of level stuff that's eating at the fabric of the public school system,” Zamora said. “And we want to stop it from metastasizing.”

Diana Patton, a 49-year-old veteran based in New York who leads Defense of Democracy’s subgroup “Veterans Defending Democracy,” told USA TODAY that while she doesn’t have any kids, she is “under oath to protect all of our constitutional rights, including the kid's constitutional rights.”

And Annette Deigh, a 44-year-old mom with two children in Pennsylvania and chair of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee at the organization, told USA TODAY she joined Defense of Democracy after she saw Moms for Liberty members making inroads at her local school district.

“I really believe in what the organization stands for, fighting for inclusivity, you know, being inclusive for all of our children, not just like the white cis Christian kids and families, but like everybody,” Deigh said.

What does the culture war in education mean for the 2024 election?

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, told USA TODAY that Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 election sharpened a national focus on education.

“You had a Republican in a purple state – a state that often was going to the Democrats at the state level – and you had (someone) who did win and who many people believed one largely because of his position on parent voice in schools,” Henig said.

“That message kind of percolated out among the Republican activist community who saw this as something that they might be able to transfer to other states and other elections as a way to both mobilize some of their core voters, but I think more importantly, to appeal to voters who were swing voters.”

But Henig said that while GOP candidates like Haley and DeSantis are using education issues to appeal to Republican voters in the primary, discussions around the topic could fade by the general election.

“I think that the culture war appeal, the appeal of the culture war on the right is going to fade to some degree out of pragmatic concern that ... those things will not help them win a general election,” Henig said.

Pedro Noguera, the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, agreed, noting that education is often a local issue.

“There’s so many things that influence voters, you know, the price of gas will influence voters, you know, the overall state of the economy, jobs,” Noguera said. “It's hard to know where education fits in."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Moms for Liberty, Defense of Democracy are shaping the 2024 race