Linn-Mar Community School District board member Brittania Morey marches in the Fall into Marion Parade on September 9, in Marion, Iowa, as she campaigns for re-election. She won on November 7. Photo courtesy of the Linn-Mar Coalition for Public Schools
CLIVE, Iowa, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Moms for Liberty-endorsed school board candidates largely fell flat in elections across the country this month, signaling a rejection of book bans and culture wars in the sphere of education.
The Linn-Mar School District in Marion, Iowa, which gained national headlines for its proposal to support students' gender identities, reflected significant pushback against the conservative organization that occurred throughout the country on Election Day. It marked a victory over groups that peddle fear and disinformation campaigns against public schools, some school officials said.
Moms for Liberty, which formed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, gained a large presence on school boards over the last two years. It touts having won 365 board seats since its formation, including 90 this year. In 2022, it reports winning 50% of its elections.
Though its founders equated public schools to communism and called for them to be defunded, the group endorsed 50 candidates that won their Nov. 7 elections, including several in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Its social media pages filled with posts congratulating those who won, but many more lost. Co-founder Tiffany Justice indicated that the organization's candidates lost about 60% of their races last week.
"These results underline what families have been telling us for the last two years: They don't want culture wars; they want safe and welcoming public schools where their kids can recover and thrive," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said in a statement.
"Where extremists peddled fear, voters wanted hope. Where extremists tried to smear and divide, voters demanded real solutions."
Representatives of Moms for Liberty couldn't be reached for comment.
1 for 13 in Iowa
In Iowa's metropolitan areas, where hundreds of members live, Moms For Liberty-backed candidates failed to win a single election. Only one of its 13 candidates throughout the state won.
That was Nathan Gibson in the Interstate 35 Community School District, a rural district that serves Warren, Clarke and Madison counties.
In Johnston, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines, four candidates who are considered supportive of public schools and opposed to book bans won seats on the school board. Their wins staved off a conservative majority.
While book bans and opposition to COVID-19 mitigation are marquee issues for the group, its platform has grown to staunchly oppose policies that affirm the rights of LGBTQ students, particularly recognizing students' gender identities.
The flashpoint moment for this issue occurred in the Linn-Mar School District near Cedar Rapids. The school district became a target for such groups and former Vice President Mike Pence when it approved a gender support plan in 2022.
On Nov. 7, three Moms For Liberty-backed candidates failed to capture any of the four seats on the ballot in the school district, despite a heavy campaign effort and the fervor of the group's base.
Incumbents Barry Buchholz and Brittania Morey retained their seats, while Justin Foss and Katie Lowe Lancaster won seats.
The fundraising for the election winners in the school district were largely outpaced by the Moms For Liberty candidates, according to reports from the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Kevin Slaman brought in $4,665 from 28 donors, including Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa. Hinson joined Pence in the event opposing the school district's gender support plan.
Laura Steffeck raised the most of all the Linn-Mar candidates -- $8,993, with donations from California, Louisiana and Tennessee. She received $1,000 from Jon Khachaturian, a former Senate candidate in Louisiana who challenged limits on campaign contributions in 1993 and lost in U.S. District Court.
The disparity in fundraising did not reflect how voters cast their ballots. The winning candidates, not endorsed by Moms For Liberty, earned 4,278 votes or more each. The highest vote-getter for Moms For Liberty received 3,306.
'Everything was different'
Campaigning for the school board was much different this year, compared to 2019, Morey told UPI.
The world changed quickly after Morey was first elected to the board. Within months of taking her seat, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in virtual and hybrid learning, monitoring the spread of the virus and debates over masking.
During her first campaign, Morey did not do any fundraising. She purchased yard signs, wrote an editorial for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and participated in one forum.
This year, she knocked on doors, participated in several forums and was interviewed on multiple occasions. She raised $1,980 from 24 campaign contributors, including herself.
"Everything was different," Morey said. "There were a lot of narratives about what is and isn't going on in our schools. Words like 'indoctrination.' Concerns over LGBTQ rights and what books are in the classrooms. Community engagement is good, but definitely there were moments that were rough."
The rough moments that Morey described occurred on social media and in community groups, where she saw people harass each other from "both sides."
The school district has also been inundated with criticism, not only for its gender support plan, but for allegations that it was putting litter boxes in its bathrooms for students to use. This rumor, sparked in 2022 by the claims of state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Ford Dodge, permeated much of the state, leading a wave of hysteria in conservative circles.
Despite Kraayenbrink acknowledging that the accusation is not true in an apology letter in the Fort Dodge Messenger, the rumor persisted and began to include other public schools.
"The litterbox conversation continually comes up," Morey said. "There's never been a litter box in any of our schools. If there was, kids would be on TikTok and Snapchat about it."
While educators and school officials are fighting unwanted national attention and incendiary false allegations, real issues and achievements are not getting enough public attention, Morey said.
"Our district has started closing the pandemic achievement gaps. We are rebounding," she said. "There's a lot of good that gets missed when the focus is on the 'culture wars.'"
'Parental rights' issues
The results of one election night are not enough to suggest that so-called "parental rights" advocates are going away soon, said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
Hagle told UPI that the emphasis on children will keep many people mobilized politically. However, affiliations with Moms For Liberty may do a candidate more harm than good at the moment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center classified Moms for Liberty as an "extremist" organization earlier this year.
"Moms For Liberty, because they have been so thoroughly demonized, it may be hard for them to have success," Hagle said. "It doesn't mean parental rights' individual candidates might not be successful."
The rhetoric from a group like Moms for Liberty has created an increased focus on "culture wars" in education, but Hagle said school districts could heed some lessons from the emergence of the more vocal parent of today.
"Hopefully, it is the kind of thing where schools are a little more open, if they haven't been, to parents' concerns and yes, looking to serve not just the community but parents, as well," he said.
Morey expects the divisiveness over school policies and the larger social issues that have crept into discussions about schools to continue through at least the 2024 general election. She urges concerned parents to reach out to school officials and teachers if they hear something that sounds "unbelievable."
"If you hear something that sounds off or just really unbelievable, get a second source," she said. "They should reach out to someone they know like an educator, an administrator, a student and ask more questions."