Demonstrators from Moms for Liberty hold protest signs on the roof of the North Carolina Legislative Building, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Raleigh, North Carolina. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

A grassroots organization in North Carolina is working with rural communities to protect public schools from calls for book bans and policy changes. 

Down Home North Carolina has been organizing in local politics since 2017. Its school organizing branch, Public School Strong, primarily works in rural and suburban areas to combat attacks on public education while also advocating for better school funding and teacher pay. The branch has had teams active in 28 counties since its launch in June of this year, according to a press release

Public School Strong’s teams document school board meetings, recruit local parents and teachers to organize and work alongside school board members to develop educational policies. Through this work, regional organizer Liz Lynn and organizing coach Sohnie Black have observed the challenges that public schools face in Johnston County. Johnston is in the Raleigh metropolitan statistical area, but its largest incorporated area, Clayton, is under 30,000 residents and more than half of the county’s residents live in what the Census defines as rural areas.

Johnston County’s public schools struggle to obtain sufficient funding, which leads to other issues like low staff retention, Black said. She also said that the scrutiny that certain groups direct at public schools for their curricula only exacerbates existing problems.

“The thing that terrifies me is that at the rate we’re going now with voucher bills, with the culture wars that are playing out, our public schools in five or 10 years are gonna be unrecognizable. They’re going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen in this country because they will be completely gutted.”

One of the most prominent groups that Public School Strong members work against is Moms for Liberty. The organization, whose stated goal is “protecting parental rights at all levels of government,” has 18 chapters in North Carolina, including one in Johnston County. The organization predominantly operates in metropolitan counties, but eight of its 18 chapters are in nonmetropolitan counties or suburban counties with large rural populations. 

As the New Yorker reported in 2022, the organization’s strategies at the local level include calling for book bans, advocating curriculum changes, and fielding candidates for school board elections. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center compares Moms for Liberty’s anti-LGBTQ actions to those of anti-integration groups during the civil rights era.

Both Lynn and Black have encountered Moms for Liberty at school board meetings. According to Lynn, the group primarily targets educational materials and policies that discuss race or LGBTQ identities.

“We’ve seen on social media emails being sent out, of them trying to counteract people that speak on different issues with policies that would benefit LGBT communities or diverse communities,” Lynn said.

Black has observed the group’s members make impassioned but vague criticisms about the appropriateness of these topics in schools. This vagueness leaves educators open to accusations of “indoctrination” from parents, even when they’re complying with school policy, she said. 

Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University who has studied the role that public schools play in rural communities, said she thinks Moms for Liberty’s long-term goal is to undermine trust in public education and direct families to private school alternatives – particularly religious schools. 

This can have extra impact in rural areas, Jacobsen said, because rural public schools play a bigger role as community gathering spaces and because families are less likely to be able to afford private school tuition. 

Public schools also tend to be a bigger part of the local economy in rural counties, Jacobsen said. Educational services account for around 10% of employment in Johnston County, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

“Many groups have pushed around this idea that parents should be choosing for their child,” she said. “That is a very different way of thinking about our schools from this individual private benefit rather than a collective public benefit. I think that shift is really important and needs a lot more examination because again, especially in rural communities, the public schools provide far more than just individual educational opportunity.”

Moms for Liberty’s Johnston chapter could not be reached for comment, but other members have defended the organization’s actions. Robin Steenman, the founder of the Williamson County chapter in Tennessee, held an event in 2021 to warn parents of the dangers to their children of what she called  “Marxist indoctrination,” the New Yorker reported. The article also said Steenman filed a complaint with the Tennessee Department of Education about the county’s Wit & Wisdom curriculum, which she said pushed “critical race theory” on vulnerable students, seemingly in reference to its teachings about the Civil Rights Movement. 

“There does not have to be a textbook labeled ‘Critical Race Theory’ for its harmful tenets to be present in a curriculum,” the complaint read. 

Public School Strong’s members work to combat the influence of Moms for Liberty even in counties without a Moms for Liberty chapter. Sara Smith, a Public School Strong member in Henderson County, North Carolina, said that Moms for Liberty had a short-lived effort to organize there. Henderson County is part of the Asheville metropolitan area. The county has a population of about 116,000, a third of whom live in rural areas, according to the Census.

In 2020, some residents of Henderson County unsuccessfully called for the school board to ban the book A Thousand Splendid Suns, which centered on the oppression of women in the Middle East.

“That was when masks were mandated by [Governor Roy] Cooper to be addressed every month by the local school board,” Smith said in an email interview. “As soon as our county went ‘mask optional,’ the [Moms for Liberty]-style public comments trickled off. My hypothesis why [they] backed off is because masks were their main issue and the books were a side note for them.”

Public School Strong has also had success in organizing for more school funding. This past July, the Johnston County chapter worked alongside the County Commission and Board of Education to help pass the county’s largest-ever education budget, according to a press release. The budget allocates funds for teacher bonuses and the purchase of school supplies. Educating residents about the budget approval process also led to 19 new members joining the county chapter, the press release said. 

Lynn credits the organization’s success to its ability to bring together different kinds of people who all support public education. “We can all see the concerns in the community,” Lynn said. “That’s kinda what I appreciate with Down Home, bringing and having a safe space for people to come and break up that scenario of us being divided.”

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