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The Movements Making Change in Public Schools

The current influence of mom groups could shape the future of education
Public school door

Over the past few years, a battle is taking place on many school grounds — one being driven by mothers — that is inevitably shaping the future of schools. Laura Pappano, a journalist with decades covering education, couldn’t ignore the growing influence of these movements on education policies and challenging public schools.

In her book, School Moms, she reports on the well-organized efforts of far-right movements, such as Moms for Liberty, in framing attacks on schools, influencing language and mobilizing local communities. As a result, these movements have flipped school boards, banned books, and changed curriculums.

“There is a lot of organized money on the far right. They see schools as a political opportunity. I mean, one of the reasons that I have been reporting on this and wrote this book is because I have viewed public schools — and I think many people share this view — as a place that is nonpartisan,” she says. “I never knew what people's politics were in my school. We're here for all children. We're here to support their learning. We're here to support the teachers, the librarians. And what the far-right extremists have done is recognize that because schools gather everyone, they are a great platform for gaining power.”

In this episode of the EdCast, we explore the historical parallels to these movements, the challenges faced by teachers, and the significance of public engagement in preserving democracy and inclusive education.



JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Laura Pappano has always known mothers are powerful players behind the scenes in schools. But lately, moms have been center-stage. Moms of far-right movements are driving book bans, raising curriculum concerns, and challenging the nature of public schools.

Laura is a journalist who's covered education for 30 years. The narrative about public schools indoctrinating children being led by many far-right groups, like Moms for Liberty, got her attention. In her book, School Moms, she explores the motivations, strategies, and implications of these movements on public education. I wanted to know more about why this is happening and has gained so much interest.

Laura Pappano
Laura Pappano

LAURA PAPPANO: You look at how well-managed, organized, networked moms are. And I guess I was noticing that, yes, the Moms for Liberty rose up and became very prominent very quickly. But we have seen moms on the ground, saying, wait a minute. This isn't right. We need to push back against this. That was the impetus, was watching that and seeing that lens of women's labor, which I feel has been constantly, over time and historically, undervalued.

JILL ANDERSON: Should we be worried right now about what's happening, what we're seeing? It's not just Moms for Liberty. There's a lot of different actions being taken place, but they are probably the most recognizable group right now out there.

LAURA PAPPANO: They are the most recognized, but they are not the only ones. And I think one of the things that they did quite effectively was that they framed the attack. They framed the language, they shared it, and they presented it in a way that a lot of other groups on the ground could just pick up and run with. And there are a lot of Moms for Liberty chapters around the country, but there also are a lot of groups that are merely kind of embracing their language, their tactics, and their approaches to things.

You know, I did a piece for Vanity Fair recently — and The Hechinger Report — where I was in north Idaho, and I spent six months there meeting with moms. And what you notice is there is no moms for liberty chapter in north Idaho, but it doesn't seem to matter, because in the school board race in November, the big issue in this rural district was transgenderism, even though they went into their second year without an English language arts curriculum, and they didn't pass a levy. At one school board meeting, a principal was talking about the schools not being clean and mice running over children's feet.

So, the kind of rhetoric is there. And it's in places where people maybe hadn't expected that it would show up. I spoke with a longtime Idaho resident in another district, who was a school board member who was defeated by a far-right candidate who kind of came out of nowhere, embracing this language, and she said, you know, I know that we are a mostly republican place, and I am a republican. She said, but we always had this kind of tone of, you know, live and let live.

And I think what we're seeing is even in places where Moms for Liberty is not overtly present, that people are being surprised by the national-level language and attacks that are kind of being used on the ground. I remember, early in my reporting, there, sitting at a kitchen counter of one of the moms and having her say, we just haven't heard about this. So, there are places where people are being surprised.

And I think one of the reasons this is happening is that school board elections have been low-profile affairs. And in places like Idaho and other places, people have kind of just leaned back and relied on their neighbors to kind of go vote and run for the office and keep the kind of civic life running when life has been pretty busy for people. And in fact, it turns out that we have to pay attention. We have to be involved.

I mean, some of the races where school boards were flipped in Texas, in north Texas, voter turnout was 8% and 10%. North Texas was kind of a perfect storm for that, early on. So I was paying attention and noticed there's a cell phone company in Texas called Patriot Mobile, which takes 5% of its profits and donates them to far right causes.


LAURA PAPPANO: Anti-abortion, NRA. They're very plain about it. It's on their website. But then, in January 2022, I noticed that they started a PAC-- Patriot Mobile Action. And what they did is they identified 11 school board races that were happening that spring in four school districts, and they poured over $400,000 into those races. They actually kind of helped the candidates.

So, it's as if they are seeking a particular outcome. And they got it. In Texas, unlike Pennsylvania, it's very easy to get access to campaign finance reports. Whether or not they're all accurate and people list all of their donors is another matter. Because Patriot Mobile Action was a super PAC, they wouldn't show up on people's election filings. But they would donate to local PACs that then would donate.

And if you start tracing the money-- and there's a lot of tracing to do-- you know, you find that a lot of the work on local candidate races was being done by a firm called Axiom Strategies, out of Kansas City, Missouri. And if you look at Axiom Strategies, you notice that they are working on lots of national-level campaigns for people like Ron DeSantis, and Ted Cruz, and Glenn Youngkin.

And so suddenly, you are seeing, basically, what were once small-time, local school board races being engineered, led, strategized by people who are well-practiced in running national campaigns. So the sorts of mailings and box trucks that started showing up in these small communities costs a lot of money. So basically, now what we're coming down to is this idea of name recognition.

If you have 8% to 10% of voters showing up-- maybe even 30% of voter turnout-- a lot of people do not know the issues or know the candidates. So, you can buy the name recognition. So, they won all 11 seats, flipped the four districts. And on their website, they were very plain about boasting that they had accomplished this.

And the result is that these school boards are now majority far right, and have passed some pretty tough rules and policies. In Keller, Texas, for example, the school board created such a Byzantine approach to regulations for buying library books-- instead of librarians, who are well-trained individuals being charged with curating the books for their school libraries that reflect their community, suddenly, the rules for purchasing books have different layers. They involved 30 days of review by the community. Then, the school board now has to approve the purchase of every single book.

And I watched a 5 and 1/2-hour school board meeting in Keller, Texas, in which a middle school librarian gets up to the mic, and she talks about the consequences of this. And she said one of the consequences is that, I cannot get books about camels, or squirrels, or football without the explicit approval of the school board. And she said kids are coming up to her in the library, her big readers, saying, where are the new books? Where are the new books? And she said, I don't tell them that this is political.

JILL ANDERSON: I think that is one of the most shocking and yet-- I hate to say it-- impressive things about this movement, that they have been so able to mobilize in a short period of time, and they're very effective at it. Just-- as what you were mentioning, being able to get all this money funneled, having all this mass name recognition. They're getting people elected to school boards, because most towns, people aren't paying attention to school board races, especially if they don't have a kid in the school system. And so there is a lot to almost learn from these actions that they've taken and apply on the other side, in a way.

LAURA PAPPANO: You're correct. There are a lot of lessons, and I think a lot of people are paying attention. There is a lot of organized money on the far right. They see schools as a political opportunity. I mean, one of the reasons that I have been reporting on this and wrote this book is because I have viewed public schools-- and I think many people share this view-- that this is a place that is nonpartisan. 

I never knew what people's politics were in my school. We're here for all children. We're here to support their learning. We're here to support the teachers, the librarians. And what the far right extremists have done is recognize that because schools gather everyone, they are a great platform for gaining power. 

And Steve Bannon said as much at CPAC two years ago. He was watching these school board. Races he interviewed the folks from Patriot Mobile Action that managed to flip those school boards. And he was just giddy with delight, saying, you know, school boards are the key that picks the lock. And I watched another interview where he had interviewed a recent far right winner in Texas-- not one of the 11-- and he said, this is how we're going to take back America. Town by town, school district by school district.

So one of the frustrations is that I feel like public schools have been a kind of sacred communal space. There's almost like a vow of fairness and justice that's been broken. And I think others are looking at what the strategies are. The problem is the strategies, like much of the discourse in the country today-- I mean, saying that our schools are full of pornography, our school libraries, where do you begin to counter that sort of thing?

I mean, what you do have to do-- and I had a great conversation just two days ago with Kate Nazemi of the Advocates for Inclusive Education. She co-founded this group in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. And they had, with a lot of other groups, worked together to flip back their school board. And I said to her, people are saying that Moms for Liberty only won 50 seats in November. Are they done?

She goes, oh, my gosh. Hardly. She said, we are not going to make that mistake. She goes, I know that right now, people are working to flip it back in the next race. And her point was that you need to counter the language-- the pornography, that teachers are pedophiles-- I mean, all of this nonsense, which is just made-up indoctrination. It's just absolute made-up stuff.

If you say it over and over again, people who don't look into it think it's true. They just don't know any better. So, she said we have to just be detailed, and stick with it, and be clear. And you look at the amount of work that takes.

They put out a weekly newsletter that breaks down policy questions that are before the school board. I mean, this is hard, detailed work. You counter it with facts. And I think she said something that I really thought was beautiful.

She said, when it gets right down to it, all people pretty much believe that everyone should be able to be who they say they are. So, you find these kind of common ground beliefs. And I think that you almost need to start there and push out at the same time that you're countering the kind of falsities with facts.

JILL ANDERSON: What's interesting is it's not exactly a new tactic that is being used. It's as old as the books. I mean, you see this time and time again in history. Is there anything that you see about the current movement that you would say is different from kind of the history of this idea of “evil educators indoctrinating our students”?

LAURA PAPPANO: Yeah. I mean, certainly, you're alluding to the McCarthy era. And I spent a good amount of time looking at news articles from that time. And it was absolutely frightening to see the kind of poison that merely asking a teacher to appear before a local school board or committee to answer questions, and the House Un-American Committee-- I mean. People were losing their jobs.

In Needham, Mass, there was one teacher-- interestingly, a local historian had written a whole kind of monograph on what happened, and I started reading news articles. And you see this kind of open, fair-minded teacher who was attacked so viciously that she ended up getting pushed out of her job her role as an educator. At one point, she was cleaning cages at the Angel Memorial Veterinary Hospital. And then when her name appeared on some list, she got fired from that job as well. And her brother, who had been a prosecutor, lost his career.

The hunting down, the kind of vicious attacking, is not brand-new. It's in hindsight that we realize how profoundly wrong that was. But we are in the middle of it right now. And we have to be very mindful that there will come a time again when this doesn't look very good.

JILL ANDERSON: Right. We already know we need more teachers and superintendents. I can't imagine this seeming a very appealing job, at this point, to sign up for. And it's happening not just in conservative districts. It's happening in all kinds of districts.

LAURA PAPPANO: Yeah. I mean, good teachers have been under attack because somebody decides that they believe something, or hear something, or-- you know, I spent time with Matthew Hawn, in eastern Tennessee. And he was teaching about white privilege in a conservative district in an 11th-grade Contemporary Issues class. So if you're going to talk about these issues, that would seem the place. This is not, like, third-grade reading.


LAURA PAPPANO: This is 11th grade Contemporary Issues. And you know, he is still fighting for his livelihood. And the irony is that he grew up in this same district in which-- as a child, he said, I wore the rebel Confederate flag on my t-shirts. I was the far right guy mouthing off in school.


LAURA PAPPANO: He said, but then I went to college. I met people who were different from me. I read, I learned, and I thought that there would be value to me you know teaching in the same district I grew up in, so that students could learn about alternative views. Not that that was the only thing he was teaching, but merely to share that there are other ways of thinking and talking about things than we have been used to, that I grew up with.

Beloved teacher. I mean, I met with two of his students for pizza. Here's what's so fascinating, is that one of the kids describes himself as democratic-leaning, the other republican-leaning. They were just hilarious about how much they disagreed about everything. One was a Celtics fan, one was a Lakers fan. They were opposite on country music. And they said, and yet we're best friends. And they said to me, we don't feel the need to change each other's minds.


LAURA PAPPANO: They were 20, 21. We should learn from them.

JILL ANDERSON: You know, one of the things you've written about-- of course, we see a lot of the successes that some of these far-right groups are having. A lot of them make national news, and you hear about them. But there have been communities that have pushed back and have been successful. Can you talk a little bit about the ways that the other side has successfully mobilized to protect public schools in their community?

LAURA PAPPANO: I think one of the beautiful things that I've seen as I've traveled around the country is that-- often led by moms-- women have come together and become experts in school policy, in campaign finance reports, in rules around book acquisition or policies and practices. And I think in Texas, it's not as if they have completely solved the problem, but what they have done is they have raised awareness. 

And think what was interesting for me in writing this book is that when I was first doing the research, the idea that the far right was attacking public schools felt like a reach to say that. Now, it's pretty much accepted and understood that that's what's going on. And I give a lot of credit to these on-the-ground mom groups who have mobilized and raised awareness about what is going on, you know, as we talked about earlier, as parental rights.

And that phrase is not brand-new. It does go back a while. But the recent iteration of parental rights-- you know, everyone's, like, well, of course, we want parental rights. Parents already have rights with their children, and relative to schools. But that's a kind of phrase that people now understand is a kind of signal for obtrusiveness and control and intrusion into classrooms.

At first, it felt, like, oh, yes. We should have parental rights. You know, mom groups have been fabulous at explicitly calling that out. These battles are happening on so many levels. They're happening in local communities, with school boards. But they're also in state legislatures. And you increasingly see parental rights legislation.

You know, there are bills about obscene materials in libraries. I mean, according to every library which has started tracking these, they have identified 44 concerning bills in 14 states. And by "concerning," they are being potential laws that could yield even criminal consequences for teachers, librarians, and museum curators. So, it's hard to battle on every level.

And what I noticed in Texas is that a lot of these groups have started to connect with one another, and to kind of create some communication and share some strategies. And then, of course, you have Red Wine and Blue-- fantastic organization that started a couple of years ago by Katie Paris, who was an operative in DC and moved to Ohio, and told me she thought she was going to be living in a pleasant kind of purple state, and saw that there was a lot of extremism, and started going and connecting with moms and women.

They have this fantastic organization that basically has handbooks. How do you organize? What's language? How do you mobilize people? And they do online events and trainings, and they have a podcast, The Suburban Woman Problem.

And there's a kind of sassy, fun vibe to it, which is a direct kind of challenge to-- I mean, it was like when Donald Trump said, can suburban women please, please like me? And so they just take that over the top with their vibe and their messaging. One of their key leaders, Julie Womack-- I remember interviewing her. 

And she made the point-- she said, you know what? People who are activists tend to only know people like themselves, and they all have the same views. She said, the beauty of moms is that we know a lot of different people in our social circles, and having conversations about what's actually going on.

She said, it's not that moms want to support these far-right agendas. She said, but people are really busy. They just may not know. So that's one of the tools.

And in every election, suburban college-educated women have been a key demographic. And we've called them soccer moms. They've been called security moms. They've been called the new security moms. And as Katie Paris said, there are operatives in DC who are, like, figuring out, how do I harness and use this group? How beautiful that now the group is saying for itself what it cares about, and how we should be talking about this.

JILL ANDERSON: We're going into this election year, and there's a lot at stake. Do you imagine these movements dying down? Or is this ultimately the threat to public education?

LAURA PAPPANO: I think a lot of it depends on what it happened this year. And what I mean by that is that this is very much a kind of parallel battle to what's happening at the national level, politically. One of the things I noticed with the Iowa caucuses was the fact that 2/3 of voters said they believed that Joe Biden did not win the election-- despite the fact that he obviously did-- and that those voters overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump and voted for him.

So, If that mindset prevails, what's the difference between not believing that Joe Biden was elected and believing that there's pornography in the libraries? You know, we're kind of at this tipping point where we're either going to have a lot more of this far right effort to, ironically, control public schools, destroy them. And I think the voucher legislation is a perfect example of that.

And what I mean by that is that this education savings account idea that-- DeSantis has touted it as, you know, educational freedom. It's popping up in states all around the country. Arizona was among the first to have education savings accounts.

So, the way they basically work is that the legislature passes this program. So instead of sending your child to public school, you can receive $6,500, or $8,000, or-- every state is a little different, different metrics-- to spend on education in Florida, now. Any way you want. You could buy a trampoline, or to pay for tuition at a voucher school-- a school that accepts the vouchers.

But when I looked at this in Arizona, the average cost of a private school was $12,000. So, you're getting $8,000, but it costs $12,000. So is it any surprise, then, that we learned that a huge chunk of the people who are taking advantage of the vouchers were already sending their children to private schools? So, we see that the result of the voucher legislation is that money is leaving the public schools, going to people who were already able to afford private education and to choose private education.

So, there are grand consequences for the future of public schools if you do this. What's, I think, been interesting is they're still battling this in Texas, because Governor Greg Abbott is very eager for vouchers. But he is, interestingly enough, being opposed by republican legislators in rural districts, who, quite rightly, point out that, listen, this is the center of our community. People go to the football games even if they don't know anybody on the football team or in the school on Friday nights. This is how our community centers itself, is around the public schools.

So, I think it's going to be very interesting to see how that plays out. One of the things they've done in Florida and Arizona is remove the kind of income caps, right? So that more people can be eligible to use the vouchers. But the result is, like, you are really creating a budget morass for your state, because you're creating deficit situations, because the spending-- there's no limit on it.

JILL ANDERSON: Well, Laura, I feel like school vouchers is its own episode, in and of itself.


JILL ANDERSON: But you know, there's so much at stake, is what you're ultimately saying, especially in this coming year. So, it behooves us to all pay attention and get involved in some way.

LAURA PAPPANO: Absolutely, because democracy, public education, we are learning, does not just happen. It requires us to be involved. And it matters that we're involved. Because if we're not involved, then it can go away.

And when it goes away-- I mean, I guess I keep coming back to that demographic shift that we've seen. You know, by 2030, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43% of students in public schools will be white. If we are running this anti-inclusion crusade, how do all kids belong? How do the people who we are going to depend on for the future of our society, to be productive members of our communities-- what happens when we are pushing them out? It doesn't look good.

JILL ANDERSON: Laura Pappano is a journalist who also leads the New Haven Student Journalism Project. She's the author of, School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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