Moms for Liberty has, in recent years, been a major player in America’s culture wars. The group has been behind the drastic increase in book ban attempts across the country, influenced local leaders to implement anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and railed against educators and others in communities, smearing them as child abusers. In 2023, Moms for Liberty held its annual convention in Pennsylvania, sparking widespread protests.
Now it has set its sights on the state’s many school boards.
There are 500 different districts spread over Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and ahead of next week’s elections in the state, HuffPost found that Moms for Liberty has endorsed more than 50 candidates in 28 districts.
Rising to prominence in 2021, Moms for Liberty bills itself as a grassroots movement seeking to restore “parental rights” in government, and most notably the nation’s public school system. But it has since become a prominent fixture in Republican politics and been deemed an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ariel Franchak, a public school teacher who founded the Pennsylvania chapter of the opposition group Stop Moms for Liberty on Facebook, felt she had no choice but to get involved in school politics once she saw Moms for Liberty’s agenda.
“I didn’t start getting into this until they started messing with the books, and trying to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and whitewashing history,” she told HuffPost. “They want to destroy everything good about schools.”
Moms for Liberty did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost.
In at least three school districts, Moms for Liberty is attempting to take over entire school boards.
In the Owen J. Roberts School District in Chester County — approximately an hour’s drive from Philadelphia — the full slate of GOP candidates has been endorsed by Moms for Liberty. The board is currently made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, with one Republican declining to run for reelection.
Jennifer Munson, a Democrat who is up for reelection to the board, said the school district would not fare well with a majority-Republican board. She said Kathy DiMarino, a GOP incumbent running for reelection, has already provided a glimpse into what a Moms for Liberty-backed board would look like.
“During COVID, she started bringing in data about COVID that was extremely biased, like saying masking was actually unhealthy,” Munson told HuffPost. “We can’t have four more like her.”
On the GOP slate’s website, the group proudly displays its MFL endorsement — along with a chart outlining the critical differences between itself and Democratic candidates, saying it aims to lower school taxes, have masking be optional for students, and ban transgender children from using the bathroom or playing with the athletic team that matches their gender identity. It’s a long list of culture warriors’ favorite moral panic talking points.
“These are not the concerns of our community,” Munson said. The group of Democrats running for the school board has pledged to implement student-centered policies and focus on quality education rather than culture wars.
“We want to run a school district,” Munson said, contrasting the Democratic candidates with their Republican counterparts. “It appears to us that they’re not really interested in running a school district.”
York County’s South Western School District, like countless others, has been embroiled in conservative faux outrage since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2021, a school board meeting was canceled after dozens of attendees refused to wear face masks, which was required at the time.
A website for the county’s MFL-endorsed candidates is typical of right-wing hopefuls. The slate pledges to “Remove Political Agendas” like critical race theory from schools and “refocus on Traditional Education.” It’s unclear what that would mean.
Some of those running are also open about their religious beliefs. “I will treat every person with love and respect, but I will not go against my morals as taught from a biblical foundation,” candidate Justin Lighty said on the website. “I will stand up and protect my children and yours from a woke virus that is infecting our great country.”
In school districts close to heavily Democratic cities, some candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty are more subdued on social media and elsewhere online. In the Moon Area School District, which is just outside of Pittsburgh proper but leans Republican, MFL has endorsed the entire slate of Republican candidates. Yet a Facebook campaign page appears to focus on run-of-the-mill messages imploring people to vote for the five GOP hopefuls.
Even in areas where MFL isn’t attempting to fully take over school boards, HuffPost found 25 additional districts in which the group has endorsed one or more candidates — who are running explicitly right-wing campaigns that, if successful, would surely make waves.
In the Deer Lakes School District, located just 15 miles from Pittsburgh, Moms for Liberty has endorsed Leonard Verdetto III. The 29-year-old college graduate said in a questionnaire from the Pennsylvania Family Council, a right-wing organization that endorses local candidates, that he’s running for school board because “we are becoming a failed society.” He also invoked his religious beliefs in the pitch.
“Old traditional values and family being the backbone in our nation is being perverted, and it’s not being practiced as it should be,” he said. “Having good traditional education … will help the next generation to be successful, and ready for a stronger future. A stronger future with Jesus is the real solution that can save the children, and to the future of our nation.”
Then there is Kelly Potteiger, the vice chair of MFL’s Cumberland County chapter who is running for the board in Cumberland Valley School District — even though her children don’t attend public schools there. She said that her children attended CVSD for kindergarten but are now enrolled at a private Christian school.
“They would like to come back to CVSD, however, there will have to be some changes before my husband and I feel like this would be the best option,” she wrote on her campaign website. “In order to help make those changes, I decided to run for school board.”
In Bucks County, near Philadelphia, Moms for Liberty has endorsed two candidates across two separate school districts. But some people there already know what happens when MFL takes over a district.
“Our students have lost a lot of their rights,” Jane Cramer, a Pennridge School District parent, told local news site The Keystone in June. “It’s been a slow process, but the past few months, it’s really escalated.”
A slate of candidates, together known as Protect Pennridge, has voiced support for anti-LGBTQ+ policies that the school district now has in place. Its candidates haven’t been endorsed by MFL, but that may not matter since Protect Pennridge has essentially same talking points, just like various other groups that have sprung up across Pennsylvania.
“They have the same views, but a different name,” Franchak said about a right-wing group in her own school district.
It’s clear that Moms for Liberty is trying to replicate its past successes. According to its own tally, MFL endorsed more than 500 candidates in 2022, and more than half won their elections. It also took credit for flipping 17 school boards across the country.
For educators and parents who oppose MFL, there’s only one way to stop its encroachment in Pennsylvania schools.
“We need more advocates and allies, and we need more people to speak up,” Franchak said. “We can’t be bullied into going along with whatever a small minority wants.”