Moms for Liberty sets sights on Columbia-area school mask mandates, curriculum
COLUMBIA — Kourtney O’Hara says she began experiencing critical race theory “tenets and misinformation” in public schools when her daughter was in fifth grade.
For the past four years, the Lexington County mother has homeschooled her children, in part, she said, because her daughter was deemed insubordinate for questioning a social studies teacher’s glowing characterization of Adolf Hitler.
Despite her children no longer attending public schools, O’Hara has chosen to remain involved in the public education discussion. She’s the chair of the Lexington County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national organization with a growing presence in the Columbia area that champions causes from parental involvement in school policy and curriculum to opposing mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.
The group’s representatives in the state’s various chapters have spoken at S.C. Statehouse hearings on education bills addressing critical race theory and locally have designated people in each school district to track policy discussions. Mask requirements and COVID-19 policies also are targets.
Local chapters have played host to candidates for the next state education superintendent and are throwing their weight behind local school board races.
“A lot of folks don’t have the opportunity to homeschool like we do, that we’ve been blessed with,” O’Hara said. “And so I want to make sure that they’re getting the best education that they can.”
The Lexington chapter now includes about 500 people who receive email blasts or take part in a local Facebook group, O’Hara said.
A Richland County chapter recently launched with an initial meeting planned for March 26 and a growing number of several dozen interested members, chapter chair Melissa McFadden said.
The Lexington and Richland chapters are two of the nine chapters throughout the state. Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Georgetown, Lancaster, Sumter and York counties each have chapters, according to the organization. South Carolina’s chapters include about 3,000 members, O’Hara said.
“We want to have more people to be unified and educated and make sure that parental rights are protected and all levels of government,” said McFadden, a mother of six who has children in Richland School District Two schools.
Though the national organization and local chapters list nonpartisan status, Moms for Liberty and similar groups are associated with conservative causes in advocating for parental rights in government, and opposing face mask requirements and critical race theory.
Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021 by a group of Florida mothers who are current or former school board members and has grown to more than 70,000 members in more than 30 states. The nonprofit organization’s website links to resources for parents that include how to file open records requests, sex education standards, and policies in each state and guides to campaigning, fundraising and grassroots organizing.
Some critics of the group say Moms for Liberty is backed by funding and other support from GOP heavy-hitters while claiming to be a grassroots movement of frustrated parents funded by small financial donations.
Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog group, has criticized characterizations of Moms for Liberty as fed-up parents organizing around parental rights and that the group’s growth coincides with increased harassment of school board members and administrators.
Christi Dixon, chair of the Berkeley County Moms chapter, dismissed the claims of big-donor backing as “out-and-out wrong.” Groups of funded by membership dues and T-Shirt sales, she said.
“It’s parents getting together and working together,” Dixon said. “That’s the definition of grassroots.”
Some school officials say people associated with such causes represent a small group of parents, or in some cases aren’t parents of school children at all, and mean only to disrupt teaching efforts and overturn school boards.
O’Hara and McFadden are adamant that Moms for Liberty is intent on supporting its issues civilly and avoiding scenes of the public screaming at school boards that have increasingly become viral videos in recent years.
“We are missing so many opportunities by people screaming at each other (rather) than being able to sit down and just have a civil discourse and work out ‘what is our main goal?’,” O’Hara said. “I think the schools, the majority of them, they do want the best for their kids; and the parents want the best for their kids. So we should be able to sit down and work on a plan together to make sure that that goal can become a success.”
In the Columbia area, the Lexington group has asked local district boards to leave the National School Boards Association after the group’s leaders in a letter to President Joe Biden characterized increased threats and harassment of local school officials as domestic terrorism, O’Hara said.
But organization in South Carolina is particularly energized behind several bills in the General Assembly related to critical race theory. Moms for Liberty, particularly, is supportive of the proposed Parental Bill of Rights, that would include allowing parents the ability to object to specific curriculum and opt their children out of certain health education topics, including sex education.
The push for parental rights, followed the publication in 2019 of the “The 1619 Project,” an effort by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and other New York Times writers to examine American history from the arrival of the first enslaved people more than 150 years before the country won its independence from Britain.
Dixon told a S.C. House education committee March 1 that the publication and similar efforts around diversity and inclusion amounted to a “divisive obsession with race.”
Elephant in the room
Local school board members are noticing the shift in how some parents are focusing a narrow set of issues that have become national buzzwords.
At a recent Richland School District Two board meeting, chairwoman Teresa Holmes encouraged parents to “stay woke,” to be engaged and aware of what is going on in the district and in others around the country.
She didn’t specifically name Moms for Liberty, but referenced some of the causes the organization supports.
Hot-button issues such as CRT and violence in drugs in schools are being used to disrupt district leadership in response to schools and communities becoming more diverse, Holmes said, an issue she called the elephant in the room.
“That’s what’s going around,” said Holmes, who is Black, during a meeting in February. “Because if you get parents (worked) up enough, they’ll say we just need to get rid of everything and everything that’s working. ... Because they know it is working.”
Patrick Kelly, a lobbyist for the Palmetto State Teachers Association and an AP History teacher, said educators need to listen and respond to parents, including members of Moms for Liberty.
He asked state lawmakers in the hearing March 1 to reject proposals prohibiting discomfort in the classroom or teachers and students discussing current events. He pointed to the war in Ukraine and a need to understand a complete history in order to learn from mistakes.
Among the reasons O’Hara, the Moms for Liberty Lexington County chapter head, said she decided to homeschool her children was that she said a teacher had praised Hitler’s leadership and downplayed the atrocities of the Holocaust. Teachers shouldn’t share opinions on partisan and controversial issues, Kelly noted in addressing and fielding questions from lawmakers, but said that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach uncomfortable topics.
Moms for Liberty and similar groups have supported bills that would require teachers to post all of their instructional material online for parents to be able to scrutinize, a move supporters say would promote transparency.
But Kelly said he opposed the idea of teachers being required to post the teaching materials and noted that while the debate is happening over classroom instruction, hundreds of teaching positions in the state are unfilled.