FLORIDA — Who knew?
Who knew school board meetings would become battlegrounds?
Who knew moms would become soldiers?
Who knew children’s classrooms would become targets of a 21st-century culture war?
In Florida, a red state, "blue" mom groups begin to mobilize
In response to increasing concerns raised by conservative mom groups showing up to school board meetings fighting masks, race education, and most recently, books, there’s a blue wave of moms pushing back.
“We want equity and equality,” said Angela Wynn, one of the founders of Support Our Schools, a Sarasota-based group of moms born out of the mask fight last fall.
“We were naive. We really thought this was a one-issue group and we were going to fight for the safety of our students and that ended up snowballing into the safety of all students and why don’t we have equity in our schools,” said Paulina Testerman, who founded the group with Wynn and two others.
Sarasota is considered a red county in Florida, where masks and how to teach race in schools has resulted in rowdy school board meetings and threats against some of its school board members.
But these moms, whose children all attend public school in the county, are fighting against conservative rhetoric, they believe, undermines public education and attacks teachers.
“We can’t pander to parents who are extremists,” said Testerman.
“It’s important to show they’re not the majority,” added Wynn. “We are. People want inclusiveness. They want equity and they want truth in teaching,” she said.
The non-profit, which is so new they can’t take donations yet, is working to build coalitions with existing groups including the NAACP.
The fight against book bans
In Orange County, Jen Cousins, a self-described progressive mom, helped found the Florida Freedom to Read Project, another grassroots group whose mission is to fight the banning of books in school libraries.
To date, the Orange County school district has removed one book, Gender Queer, from high school libraries for being too sexually explicit. Three other books are under review after moms from the conservative group, Moms for Liberty, lodged complaints about them, explained Cousins.
“It goes right up there with the bills in the House and Senate about ‘don’t say gay’, that’s what they’re doing to books, that’s unacceptable,” said Cousins who has four children, one of whom identifies as non-binary.
Support Our Schools and the Florida Freedom to Read Project are part of a growing national movement of like-minded moms countering the aggressive rallying cry of conservative mom groups.
“We are the opposite to Moms for Liberty,” said Julie Womack one of the founders of Red, Wine and Blue. The national organization is based in Ohio and now serves as a network helping to mobilize and teach moms how to fight back in their communities against issues raised by conservative parent groups like Moms for Liberty.
Though Moms for Liberty was created to advocate for parent rights when it came to school masks, members have now moved on to challenging books available in school libraries that, they believe, are inappropriate.
In addition, members have questioned districts over race and diversity curriculums that, critics say, whitewash history to make white children not feel uncomfortable about the nation’s history of racial inequality. In some districts, Moms for Liberty members have also accused teachers of teaching critical race theory even though it is not taught in Florida classrooms.
Womack, whose children are bi-racial, fear these conservative beliefs, if not challenged, could result in policies that move society backward. Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone asked Womack what her message to Moms for Liberty is.
“To remove books and take away discussion of race, you’re taking away my opportunities from my children and you’re imposing your values on my family,” she said. “I don’t think we should be imposing our views over an entire school system and all the families in that school district,” Womack said.
“Welcome to the fight”
In response to the new movement of moms, Tina Descovic, co-founder of Moms for Liberty said, “welcome to the fight.”
According to Descovich, Moms for Liberty has grown to 172 chapters across 33 states. When we broach the subject of book bans, Descovich said, “ I find that offensive. I don’t think that anyone in our chapters is looking to ban books. As far as I know they are looking to vet books and pick books for their children that are age-appropriate,” she said.
Among those books include All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir about a black LGBTQ activist. Descovich said a chapter member in Pennsylvania found the book in an elementary school library. But the book is also being challenged for being available to high school students in districts around the country, including Florida.
When asked if the book should not be available to high schoolers, Descovich said, “I think parents and local communities need to decide that.”
Descovich said Moms for Liberty continues to be funded, primarily, through t-shirt and merchandise sales along with small donors but, she said, they are now being approached by larger donors though she wouldn’t disclose any identities.
As for the next hot topics, Descovich pointed to school transparency over student curriculums and school finances.
With the growth of ‘blue’ mom groups, that, likely, means those issues will be part of their playbook too, knowing what they’ve started will be a long fight.
“Is public education perfect, goodness no. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely,” said Testerman. “That’s what we want to do, we want to fight to make it better but what we’re not willing to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater.”