“Grassroots” Parents’ Rights Group Gets Big Mystery Money
Moms for Liberty has quickly gained national prominence, thanks to a handful of shadowy donors
This report was written in partnership with the OptOut Media Foundation. Research contributed by Alex Kotch.
A prominent conservative parents’ rights group working to reshape school boards across the country is mostly bankrolled by a handful of large contributions, federal tax records reveal. In the two years since its inception, Moms for Liberty (MFL) has emerged as a national force, boasting more than 200,000 members, or so-called “joyful warriors,” and 200 chapters in 44 states. The 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit has a connected 501(c)(3) charity and several political action committees.
Although MFL purports to be a grassroots outfit “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government,” its IRS Form 990 suggests otherwise, revealing that in 2021, large mystery contributions provided much of the driving force behind the operation.
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Moreover, MFL’s sudden rise to prominence is largely attributed to the megaphones of right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck, as well as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the state in which MFL was founded.
MFL provides a window into how the political right’s dark money network—aided by the likes of the conservative political and media machine—has been fueling the so-called parents’ rights movement, building up nonprofits that disingenuously brand themselves as grassroots community organizations while doing the bidding of business interests, advancing a socio-political agenda that jeopardizes progress in U.S. education and the health and safety of children and teachers.
The movement has grown in recent years. While public schools have always been fierce battlegrounds in the right-wing culture war, the COVID-19 pandemic fueled radicalism around the issue of children and learning. Public school closures and later COVID mitigation efforts quickly became wedge issues for big money-aligned groups concerned by a sluggish job market and seeking to undermine public education and teachers’ unions.
Enter MFL. Founded at the height of the pandemic by former and current school board members as a response to public school COVID mitigation measures like masking and quarantining the group’s strategy is simple, but effective: Bully school boards into submission or elect new members. In the 2022 midterms, MFL-endorsed candidates saw some success according to the group’s founder: about half of the 270 candidates the group supported won their races.
As MFL has expanded so too has its agenda. In addition to combating COVID safety measures in schools and teachers’ unions, MFL has been rallying parents against transgender accommodations in schools, the teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” or discussion of systemic racism and LGBTQIA+ rights. The group, which is also pro-gun, has pushed for school library book bans, going so far as to create a book rating system to facilitate such bans.
“School Board Moms”
When MFL first appeared in January 2021, the nation was in the throes of a deadly winter COVID wave. Hospitalizations had reached their highest point since the start of the pandemic in December 2020. The ongoing public health crisis was also causing significant disruption to the economy, further delaying the long-awaited recovery. Labor force participation fell the month MFL began as the leisure and hospitality sectors lost tens of thousands of jobs.
Business-aligned right-wing groups had long been fighting to restore economic normalcy amid the pandemic, waging a war on public health measures, and schools quickly emerged as a battlefront. An April 2020 school reopening guide from consultancy McKinsey & Co. estimated that 27 million Americans needed childcare to work. But the effort to restore school normalcy lacked a meaningful boots-on-the-ground presence, creating the perfect opening for former Florida school board moms Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice to launch MFL.
Descovich, a mother of five who is credited with the original idea for MFL, served on the Brevard County school board until losing her August 2020 primary and her bid for reelection to a newcomer over her opposition to teacher raises and mask requirements. That fall, she connected with Justice, a mother of four, who had left her own school board position in Indian River County and shared Descovich’s concerns with pandemic mitigation measures in schools.
Together with Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member whose husband, Christian Ziegler, is a Sarasota County Commissioner and vice chairman of the Florida GOP, the duo formed MFL.
The group was formally established on January 1, 2021, as a “social welfare” nonprofit—a designation that gave it latitude to wade into politics. Ziegler stepped away from the organization after February 2021, at which point Descovich and Justice began downplaying her role in founding the group. In October of that year, MFL drew scrutiny after campaign finance records revealed the group had paid more than $21,000 to a company Ziegler’s husband founded.
The new group grew quickly, which Descovich and Justice explained in a November 2021 Washington Post opinion piece. “Parents were suddenly within earshot of teachers’ lessons,” said the op-ed. “Many were astonished to find that, instead of being simply taught reading, writing and arithmetic, their kids were being fed lessons on highly divisive topics of questionable academic benefit.”
Members of MFL became known for their aggressive style, haranguing school board members and raising hell over such “highly divisive topics,” from a photo of sea horses mating in an elementary school textbook to fourth graders learning how to spell “scary” words such as “isolation” and “quarantine.”
Right Wing Darlings
Watchdog groups have provided a different explanation for MFL’s meteoric rise, noting how, rather than growing organically, the group had been launched seemingly out of the gate into the national spotlight by influential right-wing media figures and political leaders.
A July 2022 report from media watchdog Media Matters For America (MMFA) noted that in the weeks and months following MFL’s inception, co-founder Descovich appeared on The Rush Limbaugh Show, and the group was promoted by conservative news outlets Breitbart, Fox News, Newsmax, and The Daily Wire, as well as right-wing pundits Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, and Steve Bannon. In June 2021, mere months after the group’s founding, conservative media personality Megyn Kelly hosted a fundraiser for MFL.
“Right-wing media undeniably catapulted Moms for Liberty to prominence by essentially providing the group with free recruitment services,” read the MMFA report. “The claim that Moms for Liberty is a grassroots entity is seriously undermined by the fact that the actual organizing was done on a massive scale by high-profile right-wing media.”
According to the report, MFL claimed that 10 months into its formal existence, it had already sprouted 135 chapters in 35 states. By July 2022, the number had allegedly reached 200 chapters in 38 states and more than 100,000 members. (The report does explain that the group appeared to be inflating its membership figures.)
MFL also owes much to DeSantis. The Florida governor has made COVID minimization and opposition to public health measures central to his platform for a potential 2024 presidential run. He has openly courted MFL and its supporters.
In the 2022 midterm cycle, DeSantis endorsed a number of MFL’s school board candidates, including co-founder Ziegler. He was even the keynote speaker at MFL’s first annual conference in Tampa, Florida, in July 2021, which drew a crowd of roughly 500 attendees. DeSantis gave a meandering 50-minute speech in which he called on the mostly white audience to stand firm in their fight against “woke” pressures.
“Now is not the time to be a shrinking violet,” said DeSantis. “Now is not the time to let them grind you down. You’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to fight.”
For the 2024 election cycle, MFL has been working with DeSantis to oust select school board members in Florida. Fox News reported that the targets were chosen for their votes in favor of school mask mandates and failing to protect “parental rights” and “students from woke ideologies.”
Dark Money Connections
Since its inception, MFL has been dogged by questions about its ties to larger right-wing political influence networks.
An October 2022 report from the Independent Media Institute’s “Our Schools” initiative highlighted connections between MFL and the Council for National Policy (CNP), described by the New York Times as “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.”
The report noted that speakers at MFL conferences have been linked to CNP. For example, Betsy DeVos, former President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, was a featured speaker at MFL’s 2022 annual conference. During the appearance, DeVos called for the dissolution of the department she headed.
Our Schools noted that DeVos and her family have supported CNP. Her mother was listed as a member of CNP’s board of governors and one of its “Gold Circle Members,” according to a 2014 CNP membership directory obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and was still on the roster as of January 2022.
Another CNP connection came through the Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based dark money outfit dedicated to training conservatives to get involved in politics. The group’s president, Morton Blackwell, is a member and founder of CNP.
The institute is also an associate member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of right-wing and libertarian state-based nonprofits that receive money from major corporate interests, including the DeVos and Koch families, as well as the Walmart-owning Walton family. In 2021, DonorsTrust, another SPN associate member and a preferred funding conduit for wealthy conservatives including donors in billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s network, donated $259,000 to the Leadership Institute and $15,000 to CNP.
The institute was the largest sponsor of MFL’s 2022 annual conference. MFL co-founder Ziegler, who has since left the group, is the current director of school board programs there. MFL’s website directs parents to the institute and another CNP-connected sponsor of its 2022 conference, the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, a D.C.-based conservative think tank.
As the “Our Schools” report points out, MFL’s ties to Heritage run deep. In June 2022, MFL was given the Heritage’s Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship, an award made possible by a permanent endowment from deceased right-wing philanthropist Henry Salvatori. In 2021 and 2022, MFL leaders were presenters at Heritage Foundation forums.
“Our Schools” notes another connection between MFL and right-wing dark money via Turning Point USA (TPUSA), the political network of far-right activist Charlie Kirk. TPUSA is funded by a host of wealthy conservative interests. In 2021, for which some public records are not yet available, the group received big donations from the foundations of Florida-based multimillionaire William A. Dunn ($1.3 million) and right-wing megadonor Richard Uihlein ($250,000), as well as from a number of donor-advised fund managers and community foundations such as the right-wing Bradley Impact Fund ($7.4 million) and DonorsTrust ($744,000), religious funds National Christian Foundation ($268,000) and Christian Community Foundation ($79,000), and mainstream charity vehicles Schwab Charitable Gift Fund ($664,000), National Philanthropic Trust ($212,000), and Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program ($100,000). These donor-advised fund managers and community foundations distribute money from their clients, whose identities generally remain hidden from the public.
This year’s annual MFL conference is being sponsored once again by the Leadership Institute as well as Parents Defending Education (PDE), a deep-pocketed parents’ rights group founded by Koch network veteran Nicole Neily in March 2021. True North Research has linked PDE to conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, who helped architect the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court, and the Tea Party Patriots, an organization whose foundation has received funds from DonorsTrust ($388,000 in 2021) and Fidelity Charitable, and whose political action committee has been bankrolled by Uihlein and his wife, Liz. The group’s “social welfare” arm, Tea Party Patriots Action, released a how-to guide for parents to protest “medical mandates” such as mask and vaccine requirements and lockdowns, in the summer of 2021.
Despite bountiful evidence to the contrary, MFL has long maintained that it is nothing more than a group of concerned parents. In December of last year, for example, in response to a dossier produced by research firm True North Research on right-wing dark money efforts to undermine public education, which included MFL, the group tweeted, “We aren’t puppets. We are real grassroots,” followed by an American flag emoji.
But new tax documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy provide a clearer picture. The group’s IRS Form 990 reveals that a small handful of sizable contributions are sustaining the group.
In the past, Descovich has claimed that T-shirt sales comprised most of the group’s funding—statements in line with the group’s grassroots facade. “We do sell a lot of T-shirts,” she told a reporter for The 74 in November 2021.
But that same year, almost 70 percent of MFL’s total $370,000 in revenue came from contributions and grants. Of that, 40 percent came from a single anonymous $100,000 donation. Nearly 60 percent of its contributions and grants total—40 percent of its overall revenue—came from just five anonymous donations.
Only about $28,000, or less than 8 percent of MFL’s total revenue, came from “other revenue,” which includes sales of merchandise.
MFL did not provide the identity (or identities) of its funder(s) to Important Context/OptOut. It is not legally compelled to provide such information.
“Moms For Liberty follows all reporting requirements as a non-profit,” Descovich told Important Context/OptOut. “We are a member-led organization and are proud to say that we currently have 270 chapters in 44 states—the definition of grassroots.”