Moms for Liberty came to the Upper East Side. Protesters may have outnumbered guests.

A group of protesters hold signs such as "Let queer youth live."
Protesters gathered on the Upper East Side on Thursday outside a town hall organized by Moms for Liberty, a right-wing education advocacy group. (Michael Elsen-Rooney/Chalkbeat)

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Protesters may have outnumbered participants in Moms for Liberty’s Thursday night town hall on the Upper East Side.

The right-wing organization’s event, which according to organizers was sold out, attracted ire from politicians and parent activists across the city. As about 100 people rallied outside toting signs reading “Mom against fascism,” “Queer people have kids too,” and “Read banned books,” many of the speakers on the panel rehashed national issues like the influence of teachers unions, the teaching of anti-racism and “gender ideology,” and school choice.

Several speakers stood before the crowd of about 75 people and took digs at New York City’s class size mandate, its cap on charter schools, and its high spending and low rates of reading proficiency.

Moms for Liberty bills itself as a “parents rights” group. It was founded in Florida in 2021 and quickly made national headlines for its calls to restrict access to gender-affirming care for transgender youth and block LGBTQ-focused books and curriculum, as well as limit lessons about race.

The organization has swiftly made inroads across the country, raising $2.1 million in 2022 from the conservative Heritage Foundation and Republican donors, after raising just $370,000 the year before, according to the Associated Press. The organization has become influential in GOP politics and recently started a chapter in Queens.

It was named an “extremist” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its divisive tactics and efforts to undermine public education.

The question-and-answer session after the panel turned fiery. Several parents and teachers challenged the panelists on culturally responsive education, their views on transgender children, and what specific curriculum proposals they recommended to boost reading scores.

Moms for Liberty event attracts familiar education names

Moms for Liberty’s town hall in a staunchly blue pocket of the city caused a stir. But for close watchers of local education politics, many of the panelists were likely familiar.

They included Maud Maron, who sits on the Community Education Council, or CEC, for Manhattan’s District 2, and has been sparring for years with other parents.

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CECs are largely advisory parent-led boards that approve or reject school zoning proposals and issue resolutions about such topics as admissions and curriculum.

Maron is a co-founder of the group PLACE (Parents Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Learning), which has organized in support of selective admissions at a time when integration advocates had been gaining traction in their efforts to desegregate many schools.

Maron, who recently said in a private chat that transgender children don’t exist, faced a barrage of criticism Wednesday night at the District 2 CEC meeting for her participation in the Thursday panel.

She doubled down on her decision Thursday night, accusing her critics of being “illiberal” and shying away from arguments. She singled out one young woman who recently challenged her stance on transgender children.

“She identified herself as a proud queer woman,” Maron recalled. “Which I think means she’s a straight girl without a boyfriend.” A parent at Thursday’s event subsequently challenged Maron on the comment, calling it “unnecessary and spiteful.”

Charles Love, another District 2 CEC member who spoke on Thursday’s panel, said he hasn’t yet found any evidence that Moms For Liberty is racist or homophobic.

The flier promoting the event listed Maron’s affiliation with the education council, along with Love’s. The city’s conflict of interest rules say council members may only use their titles along with a written disclaimer on materials and a verbal disclaimer that they are speaking in their personal capacity.

Education Department officials said before the event they would follow up with CEC members to remind them of this rule. Love acknowledged he’d been warned and said he agreed not to use his title, but neither he nor Maron offered an actual disclaimer.

Other panelists included Wai Wah Chin, the head of an Asian American parent advocacy group, Natalya Murakhver, an advocate against closing schools during the pandemic, and Mona Davids, who leads a group pushing for more school safety agents and metal detectors.

Some opponents expressed concern that the group was starting to exert influence in city education circles. Abby Stein, a rabbi and transgender advocate, raised the group’s use of a Hitler quote in a newsletter in Indiana. “When you put a quote of Hitler on your newsletter and you’re trying to make your way into New York City, on to education councils, I am terrified,” she said. (The group later apologized for quoting Hitler.)

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The conversation did at times center on city-specific issues. When Chin criticized the class size cap, which she said would force the city to hire more teachers of lower quality, several audience members piped up that they were former teachers fired because of the city’s COVID vaccine mandate.

Tiffany Justice, the co-founder of Moms for Liberty and the moderator of the town hall, said she didn’t think education in the city’s public schools could get “much worse.”

A woman stands at a podium with a "Moms for Liberty" sign behind her in front of a crowd of seated guests.
Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice opens up the organization's town hall on the Upper East Side on Thursday. (Micheal Elsen-Rooney/Chalkbeat)

Still, speakers offered few specific prescriptions. One parent asked after the panel what precise curriculum suggestions the panelists had. Maron criticized the city’s long-time reliance on a Teachers College reading curriculum that has largely been discredited. The city is already midway through a two-year effort to move away from that curriculum.

It’s unclear how large Moms for Liberty’s presence actually is in New York City, and event organizers didn’t give specifics about expansion plans.

Several elected officials spoke out before the event, including Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who called the group a “bunch of hypocrites.”

“You don’t believe in liberty if you ban books,” he said. “If you attack trans kids and the parents of trans kids, that’s not liberty. That’s fascism.”

Jo Macellaro, a trans teacher in a Bronx District 75 program serving students with disabilities, was holding a sign that read: “I’m the trans teacher you’re scared of.”

Macellaro, who uses they/them pronouns, said they were called a “groomer” several times Thursday night. They felt it was important to speak out as Moms for Liberty has made inroads in Queens.

“I think we need to make it very loud and clear they are not welcome here,” Macellaro said.

“[Kids] can see what’s going on. If they can see these people are coming here and spewing their hatred, what message does that send?”

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(A Moms for Liberty supporter wearing a “Protect Our Children” sweatshirt did yell at the group’s opponents, “You’re absolutely disgusting, you’re grooming our children.”)

Some protesters tried to convince the event’s venue, the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, to cancel ahead of time, but the nonprofit concluded it couldn’t do so.

“We are a completely apolitical organization concentrating on cultural performances, and – this particular group clearly does not fit our strong non-political stance,” Joseph Balaz, the organization’s president, wrote in a lengthy statement online explaining his rationale.

He said he planned to personally match the rental fee for the event and donate it to “one of our organizations which actively supports young, future leaders.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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