74 Interview: Moms for Liberty Co-Founder Tina Descovich on Her Group’s Stunning Growth, Facing Threats Herself as a School Board Member and Googling Koch Brothers

Tina Descovich and Moms for Liberty’s logo (Photo credit: Dana Niemeier)

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While learning loss might be the most obvious outcome of the pandemic for children, school closures prompted another powerful phenomenon in education: a renewed interest in parent activism.

Advocacy groups formed on all sides of the political spectrum with some designed to address long-standing inequities and others meant to push back against what members considered a liberal agenda.

The results have been explosive, particularly as it relates to those on the right. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in early October noted “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools,” in a letter to law enforcement, urging their coordination in addressing this issue.

Right-leaning parents who oppose COVID restrictions in schools and the teaching of systemic racism are seen as key to Republican Glen Youngkin’s rise in the Virginia governor’s race and are already being counted as a potentially potent political force in the 2022 midterms. 

Tina Descovich is the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a high-profile and fast-growing parents’ rights organization founded in January. The group boasts 140 chapters in 32 states with roughly 60,000 active members, up from 65 chapters in 24 states with 24,000 members in July. 

While Descovich pushes back at descriptions of Moms for Liberty as being solely conservative, many of its members have publicly railed against mask mandates, vaccine requirements and the teaching of critical race theory.

Descovich, who served four years on the Brevard Public Schools Board of Education in Florida before losing her seat in 2020, said she was prompted to start the organization after observing how poorly some members of her community — and others throughout the country — were treated by school administrators when they tried to address hot-button issues surrounding COVID.

Moms for Liberty members, wearing shirts emblazoned with the group’s logo in white lettering and its increasingly recognizable catchphrase, have been attending school board meetings in force across the country, repudiating not only pandemic-related restrictions but many schools’ efforts around equity and inclusion. 

Descovich believes their viewpoints are valuable and the discourse long overdue.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Why do you think Moms for Liberty has had such success in such a short timeframe?

Descovich: We filled a need, just like any other organization or business or anyone that has success when they … create a way to help people with the problem that they have. And so again, we saw parents kind of floundering not knowing what to do to stand up for their children. We kind of gave them a model and a little background information from experiences that we had had over the previous four years and people are finding that to be helpful.

What are some of the unifying principles among your members?

Our mission is to empower parents to stand up and reclaim their parental rights at all levels of government. Right now, that seems to be really focused on public education because of the things that families have faced over the last two years. The principle that ties us all together is that we love our children, we care for our children and we believe that we are the best decision-makers for our children.

Of course, some people believe it is their fundamental right to send their child to a school with vaccine and face mask mandates. They also love their children and want to protect them.

Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying. And I think everybody deserves a voice in the conversation. What we were seeing was that as COVID was unfolding and 2020 was happening, those that disagreed with what you just said were being silenced. I was watching it happening in my own school board. I remember one specific mom getting up and talking about concerns she had about her child and literally getting heckled from the back of the room. I watched her walk out of our school boardroom in tears. And so they felt, you know, marginalized and like their voices shouldn’t be heard.

Is there a “happy medium” in terms of vaccines or mask mandates? People look at these issues as absolute.

I do believe we can live in a world where people get to choose what is best for them. Those that want to continue to mask because they’re more vulnerable, that is their right. And there’s different quality of masks. They could be in an N-95 mask … They can be six feet away from those that choose not to mask or have been vaccinated and feel like they don’t need to mask anymore or have had COVID. Every person needs to make the decision that is best for them.

Much of what you said about the founding of your organization — how it sprang up in response to parents not being heard — is actually in line with other parent groups on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Yet your group has a conservative political bent. How did that happen?

I think because of the issues of today … but to assume we’re conservative, I know that’s how we’ve been branded, locally and nationally. I did an unscientific survey of our chapter chairs a couple of weeks ago … and we have quite a few that are independents, one Democrat. So, the idea that … only conservative parents should be part of our organization … it’s just false. We want better educational outcomes for all children. And if there’s a segment of our organization that wants to fight for, you know, our Title I schools to get more services, we will gladly support them. We welcome them. We want to help with that fight.

But if a parent wanted the right to stand up and say, “We need a mask mandate,” or “We need mandatory vaccines,” they could not be part of your organization, correct?

So, I think that we would diverge when it came down to the issues of individual liberty. I mean, our title is Moms for Liberty. So … once a parent wants to make decisions for other children, and force things on them, I think that’s where it would divert and our values would separate. If they want to go in and fight for … a better curriculum that targets a certain demographic, you know, we would support that all day long.

What if you had a mom who wanted their child to learn about Ruby Bridges and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is that something Moms for Liberty would appreciate?

One hundred percent. Yes.

Even though you have members within your organization fighting to take those same materials out of children’s hands?

Yeah, I think you’re just looking at headlines. You’re probably talking about the chapter in Tennessee. They went through every book, every piece of curriculum for English language arts, from K-6, and they made a huge spreadsheet. They put, I think, 1,000 hours into that and they logged all of their concerns. As a parent, they have the right to do that. What I have seen from that chapter is they have legitimate concerns about the grade level that some of the stuff is introduced … Nobody that I know of in our group wants to not teach about Martin Luther King or Ruby Bridges for that matter … I think all parents and community members should have open minds, open hearts, open conversations. If you can’t have that and people just want to label somebody a racist or a bigot or these names because they don’t want to hear anybody else’s input, I think that’s unfortunate — and it will not move us forward.

Does your organization take a stance on critical race theory?

Nationally, we have not officially taken a stance on any issue. We try to support our local chapters and things that they’re fighting for, helping them get exposure and uncover issues that they want to bring to light.

What are you most proud of in terms of your membership? Is there anything you’re seeing from some of your members and their approach to school board officials that you would discourage?

So, we…use the term “joyful warriors” when we talk about Moms for Liberty. We want that word to resonate with all of our members. We want them to feel confident to stand up for their children and what they’re seeing and what they believe. But we want to be … the most kind, most joyful protesters out there by any stretch of the imagination. We get a lot of flak for other organizations and other parents and what they’re doing. But what I see our chapter chairs doing — and what I’ve been trying to share a little bit more of on social media — is doing drives for school supplies … I’ve seen them do things to try to support the schools and the administrators … that are really working hard to educate our children … We have chapters that are engaging with their school boards in a very productive way. They have built relationships with them. They’re doing meetings with them, one on one, showing them their concerns and … things are being handled. That’s not the stuff that makes the news and makes the limelight. And that’s the ultimate goal. A lot of the stuff that’s been catchy and flashy these days, is where the relationship starts breaking down and people have to come to the meetings and things are getting a little bit more heated.

Some school board meetings have become particularly vitriolic. The National School Boards Association recently walked back remarks about domestic terrorism, but I think we would both agree that the threats against school staff are really frightening. I would imagine that is not something you would support.

We absolutely do not support that in any way, shape, or form. If any of our members act in that manner, they will be removed from our organization. But to add to that, this isn’t anything new. Tiffany [Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice] and I both served for four years on our school boards, and we could (share) all of the things that we went through: the threats, the constant harassment … I’m shocked at maybe the level of exposure it’s getting right now. Maybe it’s more widespread than it ever has been. But here in Florida and Brevard County and in Indian River County … Tiffany and myself can attest to threats that have been happening for a lot of years.

Have you ever felt truly frightened by someone who you felt was going to go after your life, your job or your family?

I can show you … messages from strangers that say, “I hope to inject your family with COVID. I’m going to make sure your kids get sick.” This was back in 2020. We (the school board) were having open public discussions about opening schools and things of that nature. If you want to go back a couple of years prior to that when I was on the school board right after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre … and we were debating publicly here if we wanted to have guardians armed in our schools and the threats that I received during that time. Yes, it was scary. Just like school board members now, I had to have a police escort in and out of … a town hall that we had here. So, to me, this is nothing new. We’ve experienced it firsthand. It’s unacceptable. It’s inappropriate behavior. It is never good. We do not support it. We speak out against it. And we will remove any member … that acts in that manner.

Regarding the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre, what sparked those threats against you?

I was supporting arming employees. I need to say this very carefully because I got branded as someone that wanted to arm teachers. That was not the case. At the time, the state legislature here in Florida had made a provision that allowed, because we did not have enough school security officers … and the sheriff and the local municipalities did not have enough employees to give our schools … and there was a state mandate that we had to have an armed person in each school … they made a provision that you could train someone through your local sheriff’s department that was former law enforcement or former military that worked currently in the school. They could voluntarily go through the six-week training, and then be able to conceal carry in the schools to protect the school in case of an active shooter. I was very interested in that program … and that’s what brought on that vitriol.

And then there was another instance during the pandemic that your family was being threatened?

Yeah, I believe those started when I was pushing to open schools.

And were you the only board member pushing to open at that time?

I don’t remember off the top of my head … This was the summer of 2020. Schools around the country were still closed. This is before the governor said we were going to open schools here. So, we as the school board felt like it was our decision if we were going to open or not…We all moved all over the spectrum during these discussions and debates.

Some people might look at groups like yours and say, “I’m uncomfortable with parents, many of whom have no background in education, making decisions that impact all children in the district, with their wishes supplanting people who have devoted their entire lives to education.” What makes parents qualified to do what they are doing now across the country?

So, there’s no one that knows my child better than I. When it comes to all these decisions, not just curriculum, but in anything, you know, I have been blessed with my children. And it is not only my right, but my responsibility to make sure that the best is provided for them in every fashion. And, you know, I think it’s important to look at all sides. I think it’s important to listen to the experts that have done these studies. But the ultimate and final decision on my child should be made by the parents.

One of your Moms for Liberty organizers recently wished for a mass exodus from the public schools and a turn toward homeschooling. Has that come up throughout your chapters?

That is not our national stance at all. As an organization, we, Tiffany and I, have been very clear from Day One, we want to fix public education. We think it is vital that America has, you know, an excellent, best-in-the-world public education system. And we think that will be attained by parents being awake, involved, engaged. I mean, we know every study shows, when parents are involved in their children’s education, scores, grades, the outcomes are … always better.

What is your goal politically? Do you have political aspirations for your members beyond the school board?

The places where we have good relationships with our school board members, I think, you know, that’s wonderful. That’s the ultimate goal. But when you have school board members that will not listen, that are trying to silence parents, silence the public and go against a parent’s right to have input on what their child is learning and how they’re being raised, then yes, I hope our members will decide and choose to go run and fill that seat.

So much of the Virginia governor’s race is focused on education. What is Moms for Liberty’s role in this critical race? Is your group becoming politically active or trying to get out the vote?

No, we have no involvement in that race whatsoever. We will continue to just advocate for parents and candidates that align with standing up for parental rights.

As an organization, Moms for Liberty has not come out for a particular gubernatorial candidate?

We’ve given counsel and direction to all of our chapters that they are allowed to endorse candidates — but only in school board races.

Is there any way for your group to become a political organization?

We are a registered nonprofit 501(c)(4). So, we cannot get all in for political activism in that way. We are allowed to be issue based … parental rights focus at all times. Now, we are considering maybe branching out … with maybe a more political arm forming in that area in the future.

How is your organization funded? And what’s your budget?

We are still funded by mostly just small donors.

You don’t have a big donor, right, like the Koch brothers or some other major conservative group?

We’e seen all the national stuff that says, you know, we’re part of this conservative affiliation with Koch brothers behind us. And that’s completely untrue. I don’t know the Koch brothers. I actually Googled them for the first time the other day. We do sell a lot of T-shirts. [The group sells merchandise on its website from $10 to $75]. That’s our biggest funding source right now. Our annual budget … just broke $150,000.

And what will that money be used for?

A lot of it goes back into buying more products. But we’re using it to fund the national organization, web development, data management, things of that nature … We just opened a little tiny office here in Brevard County … People have just been very generous with everything from their money to supporting our products to just giving us things that we need to be able to move forward.

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