Becky Lew-Hobbs, a mother of three and candidate for the Wake County school board, joined Moms for Liberty about a year ago.

It was during the coronavirus pandemic, when schools were closed, that Lew-Hobbs started watching and participating in virtual school board meetings. Like many parents, she was worried about her children’s education. But Lew-Hobbs also objected to the schools’ moratorium on in-person volunteering and was concerned the school board was overstepping its authority with some COVID-related policies, she says.

“We received several reports of schools where principals were promoting getting your vaccination over the intercom,” Lew-Hobbs says. “And whether you’re [vaccinated] or not, I don’t care, but that’s a decision between the parent and their child. That’s not something for the school to be promoting.”

Lew-Hobbs is one of about 100 parents in Wake County who are members of Moms for Liberty, a conservative grassroots group founded by two moms and former school board members in Florida. Since its inception in 2021, Moms for Liberty has quickly grown to include nearly 100,000 members nationwide, many of whom regularly attend local school board meetings.

At first, members protested mask mandates and other COVID-related policies. Now, however, the national parental rights movement has grown to include grievances on a variety of topics, including the nonexistent issue of teaching Critical Race Theory in classrooms and efforts to ban books, including those with LGBTQ themes, in school libraries.

This year, as the election for Wake County school board approaches, the parental rights movement is taking center stage. Come November, every seat on the school board will be on the ballot, including five left vacant by incumbents who are stepping down. With the race open to all, several state and local groups are trying to take advantage of the opportunity to flip the board from majority Democratic to majority Republican.

Not every Republican candidate for the school board shares the same views, but “parental rights” are a talking point for many—in addition to discussions of student performance, fiscal responsibility, and school security.

“The school board race is very energized right now, and it has to do with the last two years especially, with what people feel has been done to our children, to the parents of those children,” says Donna Williams, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party.

“[Parents] have been trying to communicate with these school board members and there’s nothing coming back out. They might listen, but they absolutely do nothing. It’s like they don’t care.”

Parental rights, explained

In talking about the top issues in this year’s school board race, Williams says the board needs to listen to parents and rebuild trust with the community. She also says the district should look at the curriculum and what children are learning. Right now, social agendas seem to be more important than student performance, she says.

Williams cites an interaction with her granddaughter, who, she says, came home from elementary school one day and “said two girls kissing ‘was OK’ but a girl and boy kissing was ‘gross.’”

“She’s in elementary school. Why in the world is that even coming into a conversation with her teacher? It shouldn’t be. And I’m not saying that’s not something a child should learn, but they should learn it from their parents, not from a teacher at school,” Williams says. “There’s this agenda of putting social issues into these little children’s heads. Why? How does that make them prepared for the world? It doesn’t.”

Julie Page, chair of the Wake County branch of Moms for Liberty, says the parental rights movement is about transparency. It’s about parents knowing what’s going on with their children and having a right to choose what they are exposed to.

Regarding the group’s campaign against LGBTQ books Lawn Boy, Gender Queer, and George, Page says the books have sexually explicit content and the group wants to ensure “age-inappropriate materials” are not available to students without their parents’ consent.

“We are about choice. We’re about nothing being mandated or forced upon anyone either way,” Page says. “We stand for liberty, which is our God-given right, our constitutional right to be able to do as individuals what we want to do.”

Liberals are concerned about the pattern of protests from parental rights advocates. Members of Moms for Liberty and another parental rights group, Education First Alliance, have each objected to school surveys that include questions about sexuality and gender identity.

Sloan Rachmuth, the president of Education First Alliance and a social media provocateur, recently wrote about the “social contagion” of transgenderism and how schools are trying to “groom” children into identifying as LGBTQ, pointing to the state’s anti-bullying law and efforts to improve equity in schools.

“We’ve seen schools enact secret transgender care programs that assign a ‘support adult’ to students interested in changing their gender behind the backs of parents,” Rachmuth wrote in a June post on the Education First Alliance website. “There has also been an explosion of schools bringing Gay-straight alliance clubs onto campuses. The clubs have also been grooming children behind the backs of parents.”

Critics push back strongly against such claims.

“The types of language that these groups use, it’s not just untrue, it’s defamatory,” says Kevyn Creech, chair of the Wake County Democratic Party. “We have people calling school board members … using words like ‘grooming’ and ‘pedophile’ and all these, quite frankly, disgusting terms. It has been horrifying to watch.”

“Looking at it as someone who is progressive, who is very concerned with human rights and inclusion, it’s incredibly troubling,” Creech adds. “It is not something that is apart from the larger trend of erasing folks who don’t fit the ‘traditional norm.’”

Not every person involved in the parental rights movement shares these extreme views. On the one hand, parental rights can be about increasing parent involvement in the classroom as well as transparency and trust. On the other, parental rights as a blanket concept is easily used to mask anti-LGBTQ sentiment and opposition to equity initiatives, which some advocates call “racially divisive.”

The narrative

So far, conservative candidates haven’t performed well in local school board races. In Durham County’s May election, all five Republican candidates for school board lost to liberal opponents, including Gayathri Rajaraman and Joetta MacMiller, whom the Education First Alliance endorsed.

The results in Orange County were more mixed, but liberals still came out on top. One seat of four went to a conservative candidate, Anne Purcell. Purcell was one of the less extreme conservatives in the race. She and the other candidates elected focused more on practical, nonpartisan local issues than political talking points, suggesting that hot-button national issues may not be the key to victory in this year’s school board races, at least not in the blue Triangle.

During the INDY’s interviews with conservative school board candidates last week, the subject of parental rights took a back seat to discussions of student performance and fiscal responsibility. Republicans Lew-Hobbs, Cheryl Caulfield, and Michele Morrow each talked about changing the curriculum to address declines in reading and math proficiency, as well as reexamining the school district’s budget. But they have each also made strong statements on parental rights.

Lew-Hobbs says school staff don’t have the right to act as a mother, father, or doctor, citing the district’s collection of vaccination data during the COVID pandemic as well as school surveys that include questions about life at home.

“First and foremost, my child is my child. My child does not belong to the school. She and he does not belong to the state,” Lew-Hobbs says. “Anything that stresses that the administration or somebody else has authority over that [relationship] has no place in the school system.”

Lew-Hobbs says she’d like to see weekly lesson plans from her children’s teachers so she can help with their education from home. Likewise, Caulfield says she wants more transparency around the curriculum, including on online platforms like PowerSchool.

“I don’t think there’s enough communication. I don’t think there’s enough understanding of what it is that the children need,” she says. “I think we’re doing a lot of teaching by preaching rather than teaching how they learn.”

Caulfield supports the Parental Bill of Rights (NC House Bill 755), a Republican-backed bill stalled in committee that needlessly addresses pronouns and could lead to potentially outing LGBTQ students before they are ready to come out. On social media, Caulfield criticized retiring Wake school board member Jim Martin’s description of the bill as a “distraction” and attempt at “parent control.”

She also posted comments on social media about the controversy at Ballentine Elementary School, where a teacher had LGBTQ-themed flash cards in her classroom that Caulfield says were age inappropriate. Parents of students in the teacher’s class rushed to her defense, but the teacher resigned after NC House Speaker Tim Moore and state representative Erin Paré ginned up national attention around the manufactured scandal.

Morrow, whom Rachmuth has personally endorsed, says parental rights are about respecting the privacy between children and their families and creating a partnership between parents and teachers. But most of the conversation around her candidacy takes a different tack. Morrow’s social media posts express some extreme views and have prompted some voters to form a group called Moms Against Michele Morrow.

One video shows Morrow, a Trump supporter, walking toward the Ellipse in Washington, DC, on January 6 to participate in Trump’s infamous Stop the Steal rally.

“We are here to take back America,” she says. “We are here to stop the steal. We are here to ensure President Trump gets four more years. And we are here to ensure the United States never becomes a communist country!”

In response to the video, Morrow says she was in DC simply to participate in a peaceful rally, which she had done several times before, and that she did not take part in the riot at the Capitol.

“I’m a law-abiding citizen. I broke no laws, I did no damage, I hurt no people,” she says. “I absolutely think anybody that broke laws … needs to be prosecuted. But merely participating in an event, saying that we wanted to protect election rights for everybody, is not the definition of an insurrectionist.”

Morrow, a member of conservative PAC Liberty First Grassroots, has also posted comments on social media calling mass shootings “fake event(s),” talking about the “One World Order” conspiracy theory, and implying “Satan is coming” in the form of the “Muslim movement” in America.

The strategy

While conservative school board candidates are largely refraining from addressing hot-button political issues directly, fear of the “liberal agenda” could play a role in getting conservative voters to turn out. In an interview with the INDY last week, Rachmuth says one reason she’s “seized upon” political rhetoric is because she thinks it can help Republican candidates win unaffiliated and crossover Democrats’ votes.

“Look, I’m conservative, we all are,” Rachmuth says. “[But] I have a lot of Democrat friends and they’ve all told me, ‘This woke shit is way too far. You will never get me to admit it, but it’s scaring me.’ When we look at Critical Race Theory, for instance, this is pretty basic. Anything that is going to stereotype, scapegoat, and collectively punish, in action, that’s where we come down and say, ‘We do not do that.’”

This year, unaffiliated voters in Wake County outnumber both Republicans and Democrats. Since the race for school board is nonpartisan (meaning party affiliations aren’t listed on the ballot), voters may be more likely to cross party lines or vote based on a single issue like COVID learning loss.

​​“There’s just been decisions made from the current school board that a lot of the people in this county are not happy about,” says Williams, the GOP chair. “And I’ll be honest, I would not put an R behind all of their names. There’s Democrats that are very unhappy. There’s unaffiliated voters. It’s across the board, and it has to do with the children, with the learning loss from COVID that is just not being addressed.”

Turnout for the school board race is expected to be stronger than usual this year, since it takes place in November along with the midterms. That could bode well for Republicans, who weren’t in charge as schools struggled with the COVID pandemic.

“I’m expecting a very healthy percentage of voters to come out this fall, and it’s just because of the day-to-day-life issue that every single one of us is living with,” says Williams. “Everybody’s concerned about the economy. That’s really the top of the ticket as far as issues.”

Rachmuth says Education First Alliance will not be making endorsements in the Wake County school board race as it has in past races. But the conservative group and others will undoubtedly still influence the narrative around the election. Although candidates are campaigning on local, nonpartisan issues, politics have been at play in the school board race since at least 2009. This year, it looks like the fight to “protect children” will be more political than ever. 

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