Parents’ rights, “woke ideology,” the science of reading, and school choice dominated speeches and panel discussions Friday at the annual summit of Moms for Liberty—a group that’s catapulted to national prominence in recent years.
The organization’s local chapters have vociferously objected to schools’ COVID-19 safety precautions, sought book bans in school libraries, accused teachers of indoctrinating students, and flipped a number of large school districts to conservative control.
Its second Joyful Warriors summit is happening as the group has gained influence, particularly among Republican politicians, and attracted high-profile condemnation at the same time.
The group’s event here at the Philadelphia Marriott drew protests, and it came just weeks after a local chapter used an Adolf Hitler quote in a newsletter and an organization that tracks hate groups in the United States labeled Moms for Liberty an extremist group. Days before the event, a professional organization for historians, the American Historical Association, called on the Museum of the American Revolution not to host an event connected to the summit.
But that hasn’t stopped Moms for Liberty’s influence from growing, especially as the 2024 presidential race kicks into gear. The summit had five candidates from the Republican field on its agenda—former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and former biotech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy.
The Moms for Liberty event, which runs from June 29 through July 2, brought together around 650 members and served as an early opportunity for Republican presidential candidates to speak about education. The event also gave a platform to four conservative state education chiefs.
Throughout the summit, Moms for Liberty members could choose sessions on topics ranging from how to push back against comprehensive sex education, how to spin a positive message in the media as the group has garnered more attention and scrutiny, how to win school board and other elections, and how to scrutinize social-emotional learning curricula.
Here’s what educators need to know about the summit and its implications for schools.
1. The group says its agenda is parents’ rights
Parents’ rights served as the common thread throughout all of the conversations and speeches Friday.
The politicians who spoke argued that schools have usurped parents’ rights by having students share their pronouns; teaching about LGBTQ+ issues; letting transgender and nonbinary athletes play sports that align with their gender identities; teaching social-emotional learning; and pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
DeSantis, who has led the Republican Party on these culture war issues and elevated education as an issue in the GOP primary, boasted about Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, enacted last year. The law prohibits teachers from talking about gender identity and sexuality in classrooms. It initially applied to kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms but was expanded to apply to all grades this year.
“We have enacted a parents’ bill of rights in the state of Florida because we understand that the purpose of our school systems are to support the communities, to support students and parents,” DeSantis said. “It is not to supersede the rights of parents.”
The issue of parents’ rights dominated conservatives’ education agendas throughout the 2022 midterms, and the push is continuing in the lead-up to the 2024 elections. Republicans in the U.S. House passed a national parents’ bill of rights in March—which asserts a parent’s right to review curriculum, speak at school board meetings, know how school budgets are being spent, protect children’s privacy, and know what measures schools are taking to keep children safe, all of which parents are already legally able to do. The bill has not made it through the Senate.
Last year, lawmakers in 26 states introduced 85 bills that establish a parents’ bill of rights, six of which were signed into law—two each in Florida and Arizona, and one each in Georgia and Louisiana, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University research center focused on education policy. So far in 2023, lawmakers have introduced 62 parental-rights bills in 24 states, according to FutureEd. One such bill has become law so far, in Iowa, according to the research center.
A host of school boards have also passed comparable policies, often allowing parents to review curriculum materials and withdraw their children from lessons they don’t approve.
2. Private school choice drew massive support, affirming a tie to parents’ rights
School choice, especially private school choice, has been a dominant issue for Republican lawmakers, presidential candidates, and governors throughout the past year.
So far this year, lawmakers in 42 states introduced bills to expand school choice, with the vast majority aiming to establish private school choice programs like vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, which give families public funds to spend on private school tuition, education therapy services, and other educational expenses. Fourteen of those bills have been signed into law.
Six states—Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah—have passed universal school choice policies this year, which allow parents to access private school choice programs regardless of family income, their children’s disability status, or any other qualifying factor.
“Every parent in this country should be able to have the wherewithal to send their kids to the school of their choice,” DeSantis said.
Haley also promoted school choice.
“We don’t need a child going to school based on their ZIP code, based on their race,” she said. “Every child deserves a good education.”
And while Trump said he would establish a universal school choice program as president, he also said that he refuses “to abandon our public school systems.”
“They’re leftist-dominated systems,” Trump said.
3. SEL, Common Core, Title IX reforms are all part of a ‘woke ideology’
Speakers at the summit all assailed what they called a “woke ideology” being taught in schools. DeSantis highlighted Florida’s decision to reject math textbooks for “indoctrination” and slammed the Common Core State Standards, the reading and math standards that have been used in dozens of states for years.
He also labeled social-emotional learning—programs that teach students how to manage their emotions, empathize with others, and maintain positive relationships—as an example of woke ideology.
“I will fight the woke in corporations. I will fight the woke in schools. I will fight the woke in the halls of Congress,” DeSantis said.
Most commonly, Republican politicians have argued that books, lessons, curriculum, and school policies that address or add protections for LGBTQ+ students, as well as efforts to teach social-emotional learning in schools, represent “woke ideology” or “liberal indoctrination.”
“On day one I will sign a new executive order to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity, and other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children,” Trump said.
DeSantis, Haley, and Trump all criticized the Biden administration for its recent, proposed rewrite of rules for Title IX, the federal sex discrimination law, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity and bans on transgender athletes playing sports that align with their gender identity.
“You’ve got biological boys playing in girls’ sports,” Haley said. “This is one of the biggest women’s issues of our time.”
Since 2020, 22 states have passed laws banning transgender youth from playing sports that align with their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks issues and policies affecting LGBTQ+ people.
4. Science of reading gets pulled into the culture wars
In some of the only discussion focused on instruction and student achievement, a panel with Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice and the lead education officials in Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, and South Carolina spoke of their efforts to “get back to basics” by improving literacy instruction.
All four state superintendents said they support the “science of reading,” a movement to bring reading instruction in line with research on how students learn, which has been reflected in state laws across all four states. In South Carolina, Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver said the state has begun training teachers in LETRS, or Language Essentials of Teachers of Reading and Spelling.
The popular training, which can take up to 160 hours for teachers to complete, has been adopted by at least 23 states and gives teachers the tools to instruct students with research-based practices. It walks teachers through assessing students’ phonemic awareness, or their knowledge of sounds in the English language; teaching students phonics, or how those sounds represent letters that create words; and how and why teachers should teach word parts, otherwise known as morphology.
In Arkansas and Oklahoma, state law requires teachers to demonstrate proficiency in scientific reading instruction. Arkansas also implemented more rigorous literacy standards with the passage earlier this year of its Arkansas LEARNS law, which—along with expanding school choice, raising starting teacher pay, and eliminating a state requirement that districts have a step salary schedule—bars students who don’t pass state reading standards from moving beyond the 3rd grade, emulating a policy that’s been in effect for years in neighboring Mississippi. The state is also adding 120 literacy coaches to schools, said Jacob Oliva, secretary of education in Arkansas.
“Once [students] come to us in kindergarten, we’ve got to make sure that teachers are trained in the science of reading,” Oliva said. “The research is very clear, the No. 1 impact on students improving learning is the teacher standing in front of them every single day.”
The conversation about literacy didn’t come without mentions of “woke ideology” in schools. The superintendents anchored their comments to the idea that education needs to focus on math, reading, and science rather than lessons about LGBTQ+ people, race, racism, or social-emotional learning.
“There’s a problem when your LGBTQ+, whatever, guide is 27 pages and your reading instruction is only three pages,” said Manny Diaz Jr., Florida’s education commissioner. Florida passed a requirement that teachers be trained in the science of reading in a law signed by DeSantis in May.
“We need to get all of this woke stuff out,” Diaz said.
5. Trump, focused on education more than in 2016 and 2020, calls for elected principals and merit pay
In his speech Friday, Trump suggested that school principals be elected, giving voters a chance to cast them out if they feel they aren’t succeeding in their jobs.
“If you have a bad principal who’s not getting the job done, the parents will, under the Trump administration, elect to fire that principal,” Trump said. “This will be the ultimate form of local control and parental rights.”
Trump’s stance on principals is one example of his increased focus on education in the 2024 election cycle. The former president did not make education a major part of his campaign in 2020 or 2016, instead letting former education secretary Betsy DeVos be the voice of the Trump administration’s education priorities.
If Trump is to get his way and voters are able to “fire” principals—though the president tends to have little influence over public schools, which are controlled and funded predominantly at the state and local levels—it could lead to chaos. Research has shown that schools have better teacher retention the longer principals stay, states and districts spend millions of dollars each year on principal preparation, and high principal turnover can lead to low math and reading scores among students.
On top of that, many principals are already considering leaving the profession due to staffing shortages, and threats to their safety and general well-being. National Association of Secondary School Principals surveys in 2021 and 2022 showed that nearly 40 percent of school leaders considered leaving their jobs in the next few years, and 14 percent said they planned to leave the next year.
Trump also said he would implement funding preferences for any school district that abolishes teacher tenure and adopts merit pay for teachers, rewarding teachers with pay raises for better student performance.
Arkansas passed a merit pay program in its LEARNS package, through which teachers are eligible for $10,000 bonuses if their students have better performance, earlier this year. That method of paying teachers is highly controversial, but recent research has shown that it can be effective in recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers.
“We’ve got a lot of bad teachers, and the problem is you can’t get them out,” Trump said.