Last weekend’s Moms for Liberty summit cemented the group as a key player in Republican politics, with the party’s presidential primary front-runners Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis addressing attendees both at the conference and at home via livestream. But it’s what happened in the breakout strategy sessions that were closed to the press that reveals why the group has become so effective — and dangerous.
In session after session, speakers offered a warped view of reality aimed at manipulating parents into believing they’re righteous liberators battling some ambiguous enemy located in public schools. They warned audience members that the teachers unions and other school officials that are “indoctrinating our kids” are on a mission to do everything from grooming their children to securing “world domination.”
I’ve been following Moms for Liberty for over two years, and it’s now the fastest-growing self-described “parental rights” organization in the United States, hiding behind the innocuous descriptor to covertly push a far-right agenda. Its meteoric rise has coincided with an alarming increase in harassment and threats directed at teachers, administrators, and school officials across the country — so much so that the Southern Poverty Law Center designated Moms for Liberty as an extremist group this year.
What always strikes me about Moms for Liberty is the leadership’s ability to provoke such intense and hateful reactions from members, like threatening gun violence against librarians and bringing a 10-year-old to tears. I was morbidly curious about what exactly they were telling them. Although I pieced together a decent enough picture by viewing recorded meetings, streamed events, documents, and interviews, I felt like I was missing something because I was behind a desk, not on the ground.
Until I attended this year’s summit.
The gathering lasted from Thursday night until Sunday morning, drawing over 700 attendees and a steady group of protesters positioned outside of the hotel. It was divided into two types of events: general sessions and breakout sessions. General sessions included big name speakers — Trump, DeSantis, Nikki Haley — catered meals, and a designated press area.
Both the breakout sessions and the main stage included speakers doubling down on a local Indiana chapter's uncritical use of an Adolf Hitler quote printed on the front of their newsletter. NBC News reported that a speaker at a breakout session told attendees to “never apologize.” At Saturday night's general session, co-founder Tiffany Justice said, “One of our moms in a newsletter quotes Hitler. I stand with that mom.” The crowd cheered.
Manufacturing terror to mobilize parents
We wanted to get a closer look at how Moms for Liberty instructs members behind closed doors, so Madeline Peltz, my colleague who was with me at the summit, and I split up the breakout sessions to cover more ground.
Kim Hermann, a lawyer affiliated with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, spoke in a breakout session which, according to the event description, was about “navigating legal challenges and advocating for your family.” She began by warning parents that they were “fighting a constitutional war.”
She said those running schools (“teacher unions, those that are indoctrinating our kids”) want to “undermine our republic and our way of government” and claimed that schools are intentionally withholding information from kids about their constitutional rights.
Her speech only got more extreme from there: She claimed that these same powerful actors are “trying to get rid of our Constitution” — somehow through critical race theory — and that their ultimate goal is to “destroy” America.
In another breakout session, Deb Fillman, a “homeschool consultant,” spent over an hour ranting about a faceless enemy attacking children through the weapon of social-emotional learning.
Fillman said that while she didn’t exactly know who benefits from this alleged child exploitation, she tends to agree that they’re probably “Marxists or globalists.”
But whoever they are, they’re out to “replace parents,” groom your children by creating an inappropriate “trust bond,” gather your child’s data to manipulate them, and ultimately pursue “world domination.”
Conspiracy theories about impending child microchips and Bill Gates were sprinkled in the presentation, too. Fillman suggested that math software owned by Gates’ Microsoft is being nefariously used to “get every data point they possibly can on a kid.” In the same vein of corrupt data collection, she told audience members that she fears that microchips tracking students in schools (allegedly an “experiment” in China) is coming to the United States soon, which means the government would “know everything.”
Education consultants teach how to overwhelm opponents
Amid all of the conspiracy theories and fearmongering, there were select breakout sessions that offered actual strategies to “fight” the evils attendees had learned about.
Education consultant Jordan Adams’ presentation was focused on successfully flipped school boards, and it included detailed instructions about how to get newly elected board majorities to bulldoze through Moms for Liberty policy priorities.
Adams presented audience members with a how-to guide on destabilizing school districts within the first 100 days of taking office, including a worksheet that he encouraged participants to fill out listing a timeline of tangible steps meant to overwhelm the opposition (the image includes my notes for his suggested actions based on the presentation). The reverse side of the handout encouraged attendees to familiarize themselves with and counter common talking points from adversaries.
In order to pass controversial policies without backlash, Adams suggests that school boards bombard the district with an array of demands and changes so that the opposition can’t keep up. “These [school] boards, these majorities, they need to be meeting on multiple fronts, multiple issues,” he said. “They need to keep moving, and the idea is that the other side, the powers that be, they cannot keep up with all of it. Right? Oftentimes there will be one small thing, one thing at a time. And they can rally people around that. They can’t counter everything.”
Some of the first steps include putting school administrators “on notice that they need to cooperate with all of this” and advertising “the values” the new board is implementing when posting job ads for new teachers.
The second month is defined by policies: “Start introducing policies on CRT [critical race theory], eliminating DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] offices, reviewing contracts and initiatives, eliminate student surveys.” He also suggested putting a “moratorium on new technology.”
Nearly every action step Adams discussed was also a consulting service he could both provide and profit from. Adams runs Vermilion Education, an education consulting business specializing in transparency audits, curriculum design, board advising, and teacher training. Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler (who also chairs the Sarasota County school board) suggested hiring Adams to her school system, which was the first to consider it.
Meanwhile, Adams suggested that schools are “raking in cash from the state, from taxpayers” and “funneling it off to their friends.”
His wasn’t the only session to highlight school finances.
The Heritage Foundation runs the show
Learning that there was going to be a “dark money in education” breakout session at the summit made me laugh (the irony!). Learning who the speakers were — Katie Gorka (former research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and wife of far-right political commentator Sebastian Gorka) and Rhyen Staley (a researcher at Koch-connected Parents Defending Education) — made me attend.
The message of the session was “follow the money.” Aside from some absurd conspiracy theories about the Centers for Disease Control trying to install puberty blockers “without the barrier of parental permissions” and Gorka’s claim that there’s dark money behind critical race theory, sex education, drag queen story hour, and transgenderism, the session loosely taught the audience how to determine who is really behind different educational organizations.
To determine influence, the speakers instructed audience members to look at who sponsors conferences and what foundations are giving them money in order to exert control. The examples they used were about teachers unions, but they could have also pointed to the summit’s sponsors.
The event, held in Philadelphia, was lavish: Nearly every meal was elaborately catered and served by waiters. The organizers also booked the Museum of the American Revolution and chartered buses to get attendees there, which wasn’t a cheap endeavor. They had money, but whose? Ticket sales and meager membership dues wouldn’t likely cover this kind of costly event.
Applying the same logic I learned in the “dark money” session to Moms for Liberty would suggest that the group’s chapters are shills for organizations like The Heritage Foundation and The Leadership Institute, a decades-old nonprofit that trains young conservative activists and policy leaders to sell right-wing ideals.
Both Heritage and Leadership sponsored the summit at the highest tier possible. Both have regularly partnered with and given resources to Moms for Liberty since the group’s infancy. And co-founder Ziegler is now running the Leadership Institute’s School Board Leaders Program.
And there’s more. Breakout session speaker “Billboard Chris” Elston, a Canadian anti-trans activist, revealed that the Heritage Foundation identified and brought together 40 people, including him, in March 2022 to “fight gender ideology” — indicating that the think tank is helping to organize this coalition.
In the same session, Jay Richards, a senior research fellow at Heritage, claimed that he was the first one to approach Heritage with the idea to “fight gender ideology” and has spearheaded that movement.
Backed by and affiliated with individuals and organizations attempting to gut and privatize public schools, Heritage is one of the leading crusaders trying to destabilize public education. So it’s no surprise that it’s using Moms for Liberty members as pawns to further that cause.
Having closely monitored Moms for Liberty longer than just about anyone else, I can say with confidence that the group is only becoming more openly extreme. It’s been headed that way for years, but now the mask is off.
Moms for Liberty is embracing rhetoric that not only appeals to far-right conspiracy theorists, but creates them.