USA TODAY NETWORK | Kathrym Varn | September 22, 2022
Many Florida parents feel compelled to stand up against what they see as dehumanizing, inaccurate rhetoric around public schools and teachers, driven largely by conservative group Moms for Liberty.
Before the Palm Beach County School Board meeting last month, Julia Sanderson’s daughter asked her what she was going to wear.
Sanderson wasn’t sure yet, so the 16-year-old junior pulled out one of her mom’s T-shirts as a suggestion. “Affirming parent ≠ felon,” it read, referring to a Texas law that criminalized parents who helped their transgender children transition.
It was a fitting choice for Sanderson, who was planning to speak at the school board meeting to advocate for her daughter and other trans kids.
Sanderson was nervous. She’d been to a few board meetings before to voice support for school mask mandates in the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The meetings got raucous, and she worried about blowback against her and her family.
But the district’s guide to support LGBTQ students was once again under attack by state officials, and Sanderson felt it was important to tell board members how instrumental it was in her daughter’s experience coming out at school.
“As the parent of a transgender child in our school system,” Sanderson said into the mic at the Aug. 17 meeting, wearing the shirt her daughter had picked out, “I can attest to the importance and the help that it has been to my child.”
“The very existence of our group goes to show there are plenty of parents who do not feel represented by this ‘parents’ rights’ movement.”STEPHANA FERRELL
Sanderson is one of many Florida parents who have felt compelled to stand up against what they see as dehumanizing and inaccurate rhetoric around public schools and teachers that has arisen from the “parental rights” movement, driven almost exclusively by the conservative parents’ group Moms for Liberty.
The group has rapidly grown since it was founded in Florida last year. And ahead of last month’s school board elections, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates in the nonpartisan races. Many were also supported by Moms for Liberty and like-minded groups.
Majorities of both DeSantis- and Moms for Liberty-backed candidates either won their races outright or advanced to runoff elections in November. And days after winning the Democratic nomination for governor, Charlie Crist picked the president of Florida’s largest teachers’ union as his running mate, clinching education as one of the starkest contrasts between him and DeSantis.
But around the state, progressive parents are organizing to give families another option, taking on initiatives like protesting book bans, raising money for school board candidates, and ensuring students are learning history that’s inclusive of LGBTQ and non-white Americans.
“The very existence of our group,” said Stephana Ferrell, who helped start a group that tracks banned books across the state, “goes to show there are plenty of parents who do not feel represented by this ‘parents’ rights’ movement.”
‘Masking was just the tip of the iceberg’
Education has always been an area of passionate discourse and disagreement among parents and policymakers. But divisions deepened during the pandemic, when schools were navigating how to balance schooling with public health.
As a vaccine became available and fatal infection numbers waned, Sarasota mom Paulina Testerman remembers thinking that would be the end of the parental rights movement.
“I thought this was just a one-and-done situation and we could just move on,” Testerman said.
But soon, the same parents and parent groups that protested mask mandates shifted their focus to curriculum and books that dealt with issues of gender, sexual orientation and race. Their complaints were in lockstep with DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, who passed several bills this year that restricted classroom instruction on such topics
“Masking was just the tip of the iceberg,” Testerman said.
Progressive parents began to mobilize around the state with varying missions but with an overarching goal to show school district leaders that there are scores of parents who don’t feel represented in the conversation.
Like Moms for Liberty, they’ve formed groups on social media with hundreds of followers, taught members how to participate in school board meetings and organized meet-ups and events. Some endorsed candidates for school board and other offices.
In Orange County, Ferrell and another mom, Jen Cousins, started the Florida Freedom to Read Project. The group maintains a spreadsheet with nearly 600 titles that have faced challenges across the state over the last year, including 66 that have been banned outright.
That includes Gender Queer: A Memoir, a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe about Kobabe’s exploration of gender identity. Cousins read the book herself and saw in it her 13-year-old child, who is nonbinary. Cousins gave it to her child to read, and they loved it.
“They felt seen,” Cousins said.
In Sarasota County, Testerman and two other parents started Support Our Schools to give parents a voice while also balancing the rights of teachers and students. The group has taken steps such as teaming up with 15 local organizations to pledge support for public schools and publishing a two-page advertisement in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune with letters from teachers.
On the other coast, parents in Brevard County formed Families for Safe Schools. The group endorsed a slate of school board and legislative candidates ahead of the Aug. 23 election and sends a regular newsletter to about 300 subscribers.
President Jabari Hosey emphasized that public schools have a lot of room for improvement. Students of color, for example, still face disparities in academics and discipline compared to their white peers. Those issues were starting to improve in Brevard, he said, until recently.
“These culture wars and COVID just blew all of that out of the water,” he said.
And then there are individual parents like Sanderson, or Jennifer Koslow in Leon County, who are stepping in on behalf of their marginalized children. Koslow’s son, a junior in Leon County Schools, is also transgender.
Trans students in particular have faced the wrath of DeSantis and Moms for Liberty, who regularly sow doubt about their existence and call those who support them child abusers.
Koslow goes to every school board meeting and is sometimes the only LGBTQ advocate in the seats. She’s usually wearing a faded shirt that says “ALLY” in rainbow letters.
Using her three minutes at the lectern, Koslow has advocated for her parental rights.
“Other parents don’t have a right to tell my child what bathroom he can use, where he can sleep on an overnight trip or what he can read,” she said. “Parents have rights, but they don’t have a right to bring discrimination into public schools.”
‘A David and Goliath’ situation
They have their work cut out for them.
Moms for Liberty has grown to nearly 100,000 members in 230 chapters across the country since three current or former Florida school board members founded it in January 2021.
The group also has several political committees to collect and distribute donations to candidates. In June, Publix heiress Julie Fancelli donated $50,000 to the cause, allowing the committee to give $250 donations to 56 school board campaigns. Groups such as No Left Turn in Education and the 1776 Project have taken similar steps.
It really frustrated me that the governor felt that he should not only insert himself into our local elections but also dictate what he thinks that the community wants.CARLEE SIMON, FORMER ALACHUA COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT
At Moms for Liberty’s first national summit in July, speakers included DeSantis, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, and former White House officials Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, who laid out the importance of electing conservative school board candidates.
The progressive movement is more disparate, without the unifying umbrella of one organization or leader, which some organizers see as a disadvantage.
“I do think we need to consolidate and start working together,” said Carlee Simon, a former Alachua County superintendent who started a political committee to support school board campaigns. “All of the other organizations like us were just scrambling to try to stay at least up with what was happening.”
Another hurdle, organizers said, is money.
With Moms for Liberty’s donation from Fancelli, and the power that comes with a nationwide presence backed by prominent Republicans, “it’s a David and Goliath” situation, Simon said.
The former superintendent grabbed headlines last year for speaking out against DeSantis’ threats to withhold funding from school districts that implement mask mandates. Alachua school board members voted unanimously to require masking in schools in August 2021, at the start of the last school year.
Later that month, a DeSantis-appointed board member was sworn in to replace a member the governor had ousted because she was elected to represent a district she didn’t live in. In March, just six months into her tenure, the appointee, Mildred Russell, moved to fire Simon without cause. Russell swung the majority against Simon, and the board voted 3-2 to fire her.
Simon emerged from the job at the same time Florida’s 2022 legislative session took direct aim at curriculum and books was coming to a close, and DeSantis was beginning to reveal his plan to influence school board races.
“It really frustrated me that the governor felt that he should not only insert himself into our local elections but also dictate what he thinks that the community wants,” Simon said.
She formed Families Deserve Inclusive Schools in April with the plan to help fund school board candidates who support public education and embrace students from all backgrounds, particularly those in the LGBTQ community. Ahead of last month’s election, she’d raised $23,600. While Moms for Liberty’s donations dwarfed that amount, the group had just 10 donors other than Fancelli. Simon’s group had 90.
“Those of us trying to push back,” she said, “these are grassroots folks who realize it is not a level playing field.”
The leader of a public relations firm representing Moms for Liberty refuted the notion that progressive parents lack power in the education system. Melissa Stone, the CEO of Cavalry Strategies, contends that Florida school boards have long been controlled by teachers’ union-backed candidates, which favor Democrats. But when asked if she had data to support that claim, Stone said she didn’t.
Tiffany Justice, a founder of Moms for Liberty, emphasized the group’s main concern is ensuring that schools focus solely on teaching children academics and to leave everything else to parents.
The parental rights movement, she said, includes parents like Sanderson who affirm their transgender children. But it doesn’t mean that other parents have to, she said, before falsely comparing being transgender to having an eating disorder.
Signs of hope
As Raegan Miller took the stage in a St. Petersburg event space, her 10-year-old son squirmed in the back, his bathing suit still on from after-school swim practice.
She was there to celebrate the release of two titles by Rob Sanders, whose picture books explore moments in LGBTQ history such as the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS epidemic. The Florida Freedom to Read Project, of which Miller is a co-director, was sponsoring the event and would be the benefactor of proceeds from a silent auction.
She told the group that chunk of the books on the group’s spreadsheet have LGBTQ characters or themes and many others are about Black and indigenous experiences. She mentioned Polk County, where the superintendent had instituted a policy allowing parents to block their childrens’ access to some of or all 16 books challenged by the conservative group County Citizens Defending Freedom. Fewer than 1 percent of families in the district elected to do so, a district spokesman said.
“And then my last plug is please vote on Nov. 8,” Miller said. “Look into your school board candidates. Look at these people who want to make sure that our children have access to information.”
Heading into this fall’s elections, where several Moms for Liberty-backed school board candidates will face off against liberal-leaning candidates in runoff races, progressive organizers have found reasons for hope.
Russell, the appointee who helped oust Simon, was voted off the Alachua County School board, and two other candidates backed by Moms for Liberty lost their races. In Flagler County, school board member Jill Woolbright, who filed a criminal complaint against a memoir by a queer nonbinary author, lost her reelection campaign to the delight of student activists who campaigned against her.
In Republican-heavy Polk County, education activist and former school board member Billy Townsend said that, based on his analysis of the results, the extreme partisanship of this year’s school board races ultimately hurt conservative candidates. Townsend was also excited about Crists’ lieutenant governor pick and its potential to mobilize voters.
“It’s hard to say the Democrats are afraid of Ron DeSantis on education when they’ve put the head of the Miami-Dade teachers’ union on their ticket,” he said.
Parents of marginalized students hope that support and affirmation at home, and advocacy at school board meetings, will help drown out the attacks.
As Sanderson’s daughter struggled with gender dysphoria and witnessed dehumanizing rhetoric around trans people, she considered ending her life. But she’s recently begun talking about plans for the future, her mother said.
“I’m encouraged by that,” Sanderson said, “and I don’t want someone to squash it just because it offends their sense of normalcy.”