Trump, DeSantis, and Moms For Liberty come to Philadelphia to promote Republican education agenda

Stacks of books on a black tablecloth
Protesters outside the Moms For Liberty summit in Philadelphia handed out books that had been either banned or challenged by parents in states and districts around the country (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and hundreds of “parental rights” advocates gathered in Philadelphia Friday to promote Republicans’ election-year education agenda as part of the Moms For Liberty Joyful Warriors National Summit.

This election cycle, Republican politicians, far-right activists, and aspiring local school board members are focused on opposing comprehensive sex education and inclusive gender identity policies in schools as they work to expand school-choice programs that will allow families to opt out of their public education systems.

The rest of the country should follow Florida’s lead, DeSantis told a roomful of summit attendees. That includes restricting students’ access to books, eliminating the Common Core standards for English and math, and enacting policies some critics have said demonize and target LGBTQ students and their families, DeSantis said.

“We’re…called upon to stand strong against the Left and bring this 2024 election to a positive conclusion, but more importantly, be able to actually implement the agenda that we know this country needs,” DeSantis said.

Trump took a similar tack, calling teachers and principals and other educators “leftists” and “communists” who “hate God” and are out to “indoctrinate” children and undermine the principles on which the country was founded. He also took credit for appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned the use of race in college admissions decisions. 

“Now, someone who has not done as well or worked as hard will not be taking your place in colleges and universities,” he said. 

The controversial Moms For Liberty group, founded in Florida in 2021, has been at the forefront of culture war clashes that have consumed Republicans’ education platforms across the country.

In special breakout sessions scheduled for the four-day summit, which began Thursday, guest speakers advertised workshops about “controlling the narrative” around education, “dark money’s infiltration in education and how to fight it,” and “protecting kids from gender ideology.” One session description said, “there is no such thing as a transgender child.” Most media were banned from attending the breakout sessions.

DeSantis also lauded his state’s school-choice programs, amid ongoing efforts in Pennsylvania to push through a state voucher program. In March, DeSantis signed legislation in Florida making education savings accounts available to all K-12 students, regardless of family income, to use for private school tuition, tutoring, and homeschool costs.

“Every parent in this country should have the wherewithal to send their kid to the school of their choice,” DeSantis said as attendees cheered. 

During the summit’s opening remarks on Friday, Moms For Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich said the group chose Philadelphia because of its identity as “the birthplace of our country,” and its association with “liberty.” 

But, outside the Marriott hotel where the summit was taking place, protesters gathered Thursday night, handing out books Republicans have targeted for removal from public schools. On Friday, protesters blasted music and carried signs denouncing Moms For Liberty as a hate group.

Among those at the protest Thursday was Deborah Gordon-Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy organization that represents students and parents to ensure access to quality education, focusing on those in underserved communities.  

“Trampling on the rights of queer kids doesn’t seem to be the definition of liberty to us,” Gordon-Klehr said. 

Book banning has not been an issue in Philadelphia, but it is in nearby Central Bucks, a 17,000-student district in suburban Bucks County, where two books have been banned and a district commission is considering a ban on 60 more.  

Kate Nazemi is a Central Bucks parent who co-founded Advocates for Inclusive Education, a nonprofit with the mission to “protect our schools and the freedom of thought, expression and learning.” In addition to the book bans, its board of education has also passed a policy that prohibits the display of pride flags and limits discussion of socio-political issues to the curriculum only, she said, which has a chilling effect on teachers.

“We don’t want these outsider partisan divisive groups being involved in our local kids’ education, what we want are our educators and best practices guiding the work,” Nazemi said.

Philadelphia elected officials also denounced Moms For Liberty in a flurry of public statements Thursday and Friday.

“I want to be very clear that…we find this group’s beliefs and values problematic,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said. “We oppose this group’s policy goals, which include attempts to disregard history, ban books, and silence conversations about race, gender, and sexuality. We believe these policies are harmful to youth.”

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks said, as a parent and grandparent with children in public schools, she is “appalled at the attempts by Moms for Liberty to impose their extremist and hate-filled agenda on Pennsylvania’s young people.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said Moms for Liberty was rightfully deemed an extremist group by Southern Poverty Law Center.

The group will “come to our great city to espouse their bigoted policies,” he said in a statement. “Their hateful rhetoric has no place in our city, and no place in our society. Their attempt to subvert ‘LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum’ is dangerous.”

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

The ‘Youth Civic Hub,’ an online portal launched on Friday aims to increase youth civic engagement and electoral participation.

The board on Tuesday signaled to lawmakers that they want new laws to reform the state’s charter school system.

El distrito y la high school enfrentan una nueva audiencia con la Junta de Educación Estatal en mayo.

Un grupo influyente conservador ha elaborado una estrategia para desafiar una decisión histórica del Tribunal Supremo que protege el derecho de los niños indocumentados a asistir a la escuela pública.

With federal pandemic aid for schools expiring, the schools say the additional operating funding would be crucial for students and staff.

“I work in school nutrition to feed kids, not trash cans,” a dietitian testified at a legislative hearing last week.