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GOP presidential candidates want the Moms for Liberty vote in Pennsylvania after local victories

Moms for Liberty members praise a Pennsylvania school district’s policy changes that have drawn federal complaints from the ACLU.
Photo illustration of a member of Moms for Liberty with her fist on a stack of books, a "Welcome to Pennsylvania" sign, and Moms for Liberty protesting CRT in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania will host the national Moms for Liberty summit this week. Only Florida has more chapters of the conservative group, which has influenced local races but is now attracting the national spotlight headed into the 2024 presidential campaign.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; AP

The top GOP presidential contenders are all heading to Philadelphia this week to address one of the most powerful factions of the Republican Party: parents. 

The summit is hosted by Moms for Liberty, which has become one of the most dynamic groups in the conservative movement since it launched two years ago. 

Even though Moms for Liberty doesn’t plan to endorse a candidate in the presidential race, the 2024 candidates are coming to court the group — in large part because of the outsize influence its chapters have had on the local level. Candidates endorsed by the nonprofit have swept dozens of school board races and have begun making big changes in K-12 schools.

Just down the road from the Philadelphia Marriott where former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will address legions of parent activists, a Moms for Liberty chapter has supported school board members who pushed for policy shifts at the Central Bucks School District. 

After a new conservative majority won school board seats in 2021, the suburban district banned books with “sexualized content” from school libraries and implemented a neutrality policy that resulted in a librarian being forced to remove a quote by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author, for appearing political. Educators can no longer display an LGBTQ pride flag or use a student’s preferred pronouns without parent permission. 

“A lot of us feel very led to this particular fight for our children’s innocence,” said Jamie Tromba, chair of the Bucks County chapter of Moms for Liberty. The group’s membership has grown to over 1,200, she said, “because people are unifying behind some of the absurdities that we’re seeing that just don’t make much sense.”

Moms for Liberty members regularly speak at Central Bucks school board meetings, wearing navy T-shirts proclaiming, “We Don’t Co-Parent With The Government.” Moms for Liberty’s opponents, who abhor the group’s positions, admit the conservative activists have been effective messengers. Tromba said they’re just regular parents who feel called by God to get involved in school boards. 

The new policies have drawn condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union, dozens of other school board members across Pennsylvania and hundreds of Central Bucks alumni who signed an open letter urging the district to reconsider. 

“Moms for Liberty has created this chaos,” said Diana Leygerman, a parent who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Central Bucks school board in 2021. “They’re single-handedly responsible for this chaos in our communities. None of this was happening prior to these groups infiltrating school boards — none of this anger, none of this fighting. I mean, our communities weren’t perfect, but they weren’t this broken.”

The district’s superintendent did not respond to requests for comment. 

Board President Dana Hunter, who declined an interview request, said in an emailed statement that the district’s policies aren’t targeting the LGBTQ community. The neutrality policy prohibiting LGBTQ pride symbols is meant to prevent teachers from making students feel “uncomfortable by expressing their personal views on social or political issues,” she said. The book review policy is intended to ensure children are not exposed to “graphic illustrations of sexual acts,” she added. And teachers must have parent permission to use a student’s preferred pronouns, she said, because “keeping that identity information hidden from a parent is unconscionable.”

In a little more than two years, Moms for Liberty has grown to 285 chapters in 44 states. Its endorsements have given a boost to school board candidates, particularly in Florida. And nationally, its members’ complaints about discussions of gender identity and race in classrooms and imagery in library books have propelled state legislation, and inspired a growing number of grassroots progressive groups trying to stop Moms for Liberty’s momentum.

“The future plan is to save the country by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights,” Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said in an interview. “Because if we do not have the right to direct the upbringing of our children, if the government and the state think they know better than a parent for their child, there is no future for America.”

The Pennsylvania chapter of Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., that advocates against childhood vaccinations, will have an exhibit at the summit. So will the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA and an outfit called the Election Integrity Network that is run by an attorney who assisted Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

“These are sophisticated political operators,” said Josh Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University. “It’s just hard for me to look at Moms for Liberty as anything else at this point but part of this larger political operation.”

Over the past two years, Moms for Liberty has had the most electoral success in its home state of Florida, where it has the most chapters and a majority of its endorsed school board candidates — many of whom were also backed by DeSantis — won their elections last fall. Upon taking office, several of them moved to fire superintendents, cut ties with LGTBQ advocacy groups and ban LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter signage.

Pennsylvania ranks second behind Florida as the state with the most Moms for Liberty chapters. And in Bucks County, a key swing district for statewide elections that has trended Democratic recently, things have been particularly heated over the past two years as Moms for Liberty’s influence has grown.

A handful of other local groups and activists have financially supported conservative school board candidates — including one Central Bucks father who spent over $500,000 backing contenders in the state — but Moms for Liberty’s organizing power primarily lies in its large membership and messaging networks.

Two women elected to the Central Bucks school board in November 2021, Debra Cannon and Lisa Sciscio, had been members of a private Moms for Liberty Facebook group. After they won, the national directors of Moms for Liberty congratulated the Bucks County chapter on Facebook for propelling “parental rights” candidates into office that fall. More recently, the Bucks County chapter of Moms for Liberty endorsed the current board president, Dana Hunter, who is up for re-election in the fall. Cannon, Sciscio and Hunter did not respond to interview requests. 

In spring 2022, backed by the board’s new six-member conservative majority, the district banned LGBTQ pride symbols as part of a neutrality policy prohibiting teachers from advocating one side on social policy issues. The policy resulted in a principal directing a librarian to remove the Wiesel quotation, which read in part: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” The librarian was later allowed to post the quote if he presented it “in conjunction with Mr. Wiesel’s book.”

Tricia Doebler, who was vice chair of the Bucks County Moms for Liberty until March, saw this new rule as a sign the district was getting “back to academic excellence.” She and other local parents declared their support at board meetings while wearing Moms for Liberty shirts.

“I don’t think that they would want to see a pro-life poster in the classroom or a thin blue line sign,” Doebler said in an interview. “I could make the argument that my child would feel much safer — being the child of a police officer — walking into a classroom seeing a thin blue line flag knowing that that teacher supported police officers. So I think the neutrality policy protects our classrooms from the outside noise that has gotten a lot louder in the last three years.”

But Ben Busick, who graduated from the Central Bucks district this month and is nonbinary, said the new policy enabled bullying of LGBTQ students, many of whom have spoken at board meetings about being called slurs without consequences.

“The policy doesn’t say to treat LGBT students worse,” Busick said, “but it allows students to act that way because it forces teachers into neutrality and it thrusts the students right into vulnerability without any sense of safety.”

"It makes it really, really difficult to have a substantive learning environment when you’re in the middle of this cultural war."

Ben Busick, Central Bucks Schools Graduate

The backlash to the new policy went beyond the district. Fifty-two school board members from 25 Pennsylvania districts condemned the Central Bucks board’s conservative majority in a February open letter, writing that their policies “foster intolerance.” More than 800 district alumni signed a different open letter in March expressing outrage that the board was “imposing their political views” on  students and teachers.

“It makes it really, really difficult to have a substantive learning environment when you’re in the middle of this cultural war, literally, right in the middle, and everybody knows it,” Busick said.

Last summer, the board created a process allowing anyone to file a complaint over books available in school libraries. The district is now considering removing more than 50 books, each of them also listed on BookLooks, a website created by a Moms for Liberty member to highlight concerns about specific titles, though the site also says it is not affiliated with the conservative group. In some cases, the complainants said they hadn’t read the books, but had seen objectionable passages on BookLooks, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Tromba, the local Moms for Liberty chair, said it’s “unfortunate” that close to half of the books listed on the website are LGBTQ themed, but that the list isn’t targeting literature about gender identity and sexuality.

“I don’t understand why you have to have graphic content in those kinds of books to represent that genre of people,” she said.

The ACLU’s Pennsylvania branch cited book policies in a civil rights complaint filed last fall with the U.S. Department of Education. The complaint alleged the district’s policies made life worse for teachers and LGBTQ students in school, saying that administrators denied requests for sensitivity training and retaliated against a teacher who pushed back on book bans, and that some children started eating lunch in private to avoid bullying. 

From September to December 2022, the Education Department opened seven civil rights investigations in the district. The department did not respond to a request for comment.

The district hired a law firm to investigate the allegations last fall. The firm produced a report last month that concluded the district hadn’t discriminated against students, nor failed to address anti-LGBTQ bullying, the Inquirer reported.

At a June 13 board meeting, Central Bucks Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh denied criticism from community members that he did not support LGBTQ students.

“But make no mistake about this,” he added, “I will defend students and will defend against anything contributing to the sexualization of students.”

The federal civil rights probes could take years to resolve. In the meantime, several local progressive advocacy groups are focusing on the fall elections, backing a slate of five Democratic candidates who promise to “stop the chaos” in Central Bucks as the “Neighbors United” slate. They will compete against Republican candidates campaigning as the “Forward” slate, with backing from the Bucks County Moms for Liberty. 

Doebler, who chairs a political action committee supporting the conservative Central Bucks school board candidates, said she fears that if the board flips, it would allow children to play on the sports team matching their gender identity and that mask mandates would return.

“I’m very afraid of that — that they would mask for the flu,” she said. “So that is an issue, still, for me. It’s not just forgive and forget and move on.”