From xxxxxx <[email protected]>
Subject The Right-Wing Mothers Fuelling the School-Board Wars
Date November 1, 2022 5:25 AM
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[ Moms for Liberty claims that teachers are indoctrinating
students with dangerous ideologies. But is the group’s aim
protecting kids—or scaring parents?]
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Paige Williams
October 31, 2022
The New Yorker
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_ Moms for Liberty claims that teachers are indoctrinating students
with dangerous ideologies. But is the group’s aim protecting
kids—or scaring parents? _

The group Moms for Liberty accuses teachers of using books to
indoctrinate kids about critical race theory and gender fluidity.,
Illustration by Joan Wong; Source photograph from Getty


In August, 2020, Williamson County Schools, which serves more than
forty thousand students in suburban Nashville, started using an
English and Language Arts curriculum called Wit & Wisdom. The program,
which is published by Great Minds, a company based in Washington,
D.C., wasn’t a renegade choice: hundreds of school districts
nationwide had adopted it. Both Massachusetts and Louisiana—states
with sharply different political profiles—gave Wit & Wisdom high
approval ratings.

The decision had followed a strict process. The Tennessee State Board
of Education governs academic standards and updates them every five or
six years, providing school districts with an opportunity to switch
curricula. Williamson County Schools assembled a selection
committee—twenty-six parents, twenty-eight elementary-school
teachers of English and Language Arts. The committee presented four
options to teachers, who voted on them in February, 2020. Wit & Wisdom
was the overwhelming favorite. After the selection committee ratified
the teachers’ choice, the school board, which has twelve members,
unanimously adopted Wit & Wisdom, along with a traditional phonics
program, for K-5 students.

Great Minds’s promotional materials explain that Wit & Wisdom is
designed to let students “read books they love while building
knowledge of important topics” in literature, science, history, and
art. By immersing students in “content-rich” topics that spark
lively discussion, the curriculum prepares them to tackle more
complicated texts. The materials are challenging by design: studies
have shown that students read better sooner when confronted with
complex sentences and advanced vocabulary. Wit & Wisdom’s hundred
and eighteen “core” texts, which range from picture books to
nonfiction, emphasize diversity, but not in a strident way. They
provide “mirrors and windows,” allowing readers both to see
themselves in the stories and to learn about other people’s lives.
The curriculum assigns or recommends portraits of heralded pioneers:
Leonardo da Vinci, Sacagawea, Clara Barton, Duke Ellington, Ada
Lovelace. The lessons revolve around readings, augmented with
paintings, poetry, speeches, interviews, films, and music: in the
module “A Hero’s Journey,” students explore an illustrated
retelling of the Odyssey alongside the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic,
while also discussing “Star Wars.” A section on “Wordplay”
pairs “The Phantom Tollbooth
[[link removed]]”
with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine.

Elsewhere in Tennessee, teachers were saying that Wit & Wisdom
improved literacy. The superintendent of Lauderdale County, a rural
area where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty
line, published an essay reporting that his district’s teachers had
noticed “an enormous difference in students’ writing” after
implementing the curriculum. Wit & Wisdom encourages students to
discuss readings with their families—a father in Sumner County,
northeast of Nashville, was pleased that his daughters now talked
about civil rights and the American Revolution at dinner.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Wit & Wisdom became the target of
intense criticism. At first, the campaign in Williamson County was
cryptic: stray e-mails, phone calls, public-information requests. Eric
Welch, who was first elected to the school board in 2010, told me that
the complainers “wouldn’t just e-mail _us_—they would copy the
county commission, our state legislative delegation, and state
representatives in other counties.” He said, “It was obviously an
attempt to intimidate.”

The school board is an American institution whose members, until
recently, enjoyed visibility on a par with that of the county tax
collector. “There’s no glory in being a school-board member—and
there _shouldn’t_ be,” Anne McGraw, a former Williamson County
Schools board member, said on a local podcast last year. Normally, the
district’s public meetings were sedate affairs featuring polite
exchanges among civic-minded locals. The system’s slogan was: “Be

In May, 2021, as the district finished its first academic year with
Wit & Wisdom, women wearing “Moms for Liberty” T-shirts began
appearing at school-board meetings. They brought large placards that
contained images and text from thirty-one books that they didn’t
want students to read. In public comments and in written complaints,
the women claimed that Wit & Wisdom was teaching children to hate
themselves, one another, their families, and America. “Rap a Tap Tap
[[link removed]],”
an illustrated story about the vaudeville-era tap dancer Bill
(Bojangles) Robinson, by the Caldecott medalists Leo and Diane Dillon,
harped on “skin color differences.” A picture book about
seahorses, which touched on everything from their ability to change
color to the independent movement of their eyes, threatened to
“normalize that males can get pregnant” by explaining that male
seahorses give birth; the Moms suspected a covert endorsement of
“gender fluidity.” Greco-Roman myths: nudity, cannibalism. (Venus
emerges naked from the sea; Tantalus cooks his son.)

The Moms kept attending school-board meetings and issuing complaints.
Curiously, though they positioned themselves as traditionalists, they
often borrowed “woke” rhetoric about the dangers of triggering
vulnerable students. Readings about Ruby Bridges—who, in 1961,
became the first Black child to attend an all-white school in New
Orleans—exposed students to “psychological distress” because
they described an angry white mob. (Bridges, in a memoir
[[link removed]] designed
for young readers, wrote, “They yelled at me to go away.”) The
Moms also declared that, though they admired Martin Luther King,
Jr.,’s iconic line about judging others “on the content of their
character,” the book “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on
[[link removed]]”
was unacceptable, because it contained historical
photographs—segregated drinking fountains, firefighters blasting
Black Americans with hoses—that might make kids feel bad. The Moms
considered it divisive for Wit & Wisdom to urge instructors to remind
students that racial slurs are “words people use to show disrespect
and hatred towards people of different races.”

At one meeting, Welch watched, stunned, as a Moms member said, “You
are poisoning our children,” and “Wit & Wisdom must go!” Welch
told me, “They went from zero to a hundred. Everything from them was
aggressive, and threatening in nature.” He said, “It was not
‘Let’s have a dialogue.’ It was ‘Here are our demands.’ ”

When the women in T-shirts first showed up, Welch had never heard of
Moms for Liberty, and he didn’t recognize its members. The group’s
leader, Robin Steenman, was in her early forties, with shoulder-length
blond hair; in coloring and build, she resembled Marjorie Taylor
[[link removed]].
Board of Education members struggled to understand why she’d
inserted herself into a matter that didn’t concern her: Steenman had
no children in the public schools.

Moms for Liberty members soon escalated the conflict, publicly
asserting that Williamson County Schools had adopted Wit & Wisdom
hurriedly, and in violation of state rules. The school board still
wasn’t sure what Moms for Liberty was—who founded it, who funded
it. Nevertheless, the district assembled a reassessment team to review
the curriculum and the adoption process. At a public “work
session” in June, 2021, the team announced that, after a preliminary
review, it hadn’t found any violations of protocol. Teachers had
spent a full workday familiarizing themselves with Wit & Wisdom before
implementing it. As Jenny Lopez, the district’s curriculum director,
explained, “Teachers actually had more time than
they’ve _ever_ had to look at materials.”

The superintendent, Jason Golden, urged his colleagues to take
parental feedback seriously, including worries that certain Wit &
Wisdom content was too mature for young kids. For example, there were
gruesome details in books about shark attacks and about war. Golden
told the board, “These are real concerns.” Yet Golden also
recalled telling a Moms for Liberty representative how much he trusted
the district’s processes for evaluating curricula.

The review committee ultimately concluded that Wit & Wisdom had been
an over-all success; still, administrators decided to survey teachers
quarterly about how the curriculum was working. They limited access to
the gorier images in one Civil War book and imposed similar
“guardrails” involving “Hatchet
[[link removed]],” a
popular young-adult novel in which a character attempts suicide.
“Walk Two Moons
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a novel by the Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech, about a
daughter’s quest to find her missing mother, was eventually removed
from the Williamson version of the program, not because its content
was deemed objectionable but, rather, to adjust the pacing of one
fourth-grade module. Golden, who is tall and genial, told the board
members, “The overwhelming feedback that we got was: ‘Man, can’t
we just read something _uplifting_ in fourth grade?’ And we felt
the same way!”

At the work session, Golden shared one end of a conference table with
Nancy Garrett, the board’s chair. Garrett, who has rectangular
glasses and a blond bob, is from a family that has attended or worked
in Williamson County Schools for three generations. She had won the
chairmanship, by unanimous vote, the previous August. At one point,
she asked an assistant superintendent who had overseen the selection
and review of Wit & Wisdom whether “the concept of critical race
theory” had come up during the process. No, the assistant
superintendent said.

Moms for Liberty members were portraying Wit & Wisdom as “critical
race theory” in disguise. Garrett found this baffling. C.R.T., a
complex academic framework that examines the systemic ways in which
racism has shaped American society, is explored at the university
level or higher. As far as the board knew, Williamson County Schools
had never introduced the concept. Yet there had been such a deluge of
references to it that Garrett had delved into her old e-mails, in an
unsuccessful attempt to identify the origins of the outrage. She told
her colleagues, “I guess I’m wondering what _happened_.”

In September, 2020—four months after the murder of George Floyd
[[link removed]], two months before the
Presidential election, and a month into Williamson County Schools’
use of Wit & Wisdom—Christopher Rufo
[[link removed]],
a conservative activist, appeared on Tucker Carlson
[[link removed]]’s
show, on Fox News, and called critical race theory “an existential
threat to the United States.” Rufo capitalized on the fact that,
given C.R.T.’s academic provenance, few Americans had heard of the
concept. He argued that liberal educators, under the bland banner of
“diversity,” were manipulating students into thinking of America
not as a vibrant champion of democracy but as a shameful embodiment of
white supremacy. (As he framed things, there were no in-between
positions.) Rufo later called C.R.T. “the perfect villain”—a
term that “connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed,
poisonous, elitist, anti-American views.”

Rufo found a receptive ear in President Donald Trump
[[link removed]], who was already ranting
about “The 1619 Project
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the collection of _Times Magazine_ essays in which slavery is placed
at the heart of the nation’s founding. On Twitter, Trump had warned
that the Department of Education would defund any school whose
classroom taught material from the project. Trump conferred with Rufo
and banned federal agencies from conducting “un-American propaganda
training sessions” involving “critical race theory” or “white
privilege.” Trump said that Black Lives Matter protests were
proliferating not because of anger over police abuses but because of
“decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” Establishing
a “1776 Commission,” he urged “patriotic moms and dads” to
demand that schools stop feeding children “hateful lies about this
country.” (The American Historical Association condemned the
Administration’s eventual “1776 Report,” highlighting its many
inaccuracies and arguing that it attempted to airbrush history and
“elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.”)

Nearly nine hundred school districts nationwide were soon targeted by
anti-C.R.T. campaigns, many of which adopted language that closely
echoed Trump’s order not to teach material that made others “feel
discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological
distress on account of his or her race or sex.” In some red states,
the vague wording was enshrined as law. Republicans filed what became
known as “anti-C.R.T.” bills; they were seemingly cut and pasted
from templates, with similarly phrased references to such terms as
“divisive concepts” and “indoctrination.”

Williamson County Schools was uneventfully wrapping up its first term
with Wit & Wisdom when, in early December, 2020, the American
Legislative Exchange Council, which generates model legislation for
right-leaning lawmakers, hosted a Webinar about “reclaiming
education and the American dream.” A representative of the Heritage
Foundation, the conservative think tank, warned that elements of a
“Black Lives Matter curriculum” were “now in our schools.”
Rufo—correctly predicting that Joe Biden
[[link removed]], then the President-elect,
would abolish Trump’s executive order—urged state legislators and
governors to take up the fight.

Continuing the agitation wasn’t just an act of fealty to Trump; it
was cunning politics. The fear that C.R.T. would cause children to
become fixated on race has resonated with enough voters to help tip
important elections. Last November, Glenn Youngkin
[[link removed]],
a candidate for the governorship of Virginia, won an upset victory
after repeatedly warning that the “curriculum has gone
haywire”—and promising to sign an executive order banning C.R.T.
from schools. Jatia Wrighten, a political scientist at Virginia
Commonwealth University, told the Washington _Post_
[[link removed]] that
Youngkin had “activated white women to vote in a very specific way
that they feel like is protecting their children.”

Days after the _alec_ Webinar on “reclaiming education,” three
women in Florida filed incorporation papers for Moms for Liberty,
Inc., later declaring that their “sole purpose” was to “fight
for parental rights” to choose what sort of education was best for
their kids. One of the organization’s founders, Tina Descovich—who
had recently lost reëlection to the school board of Brevard County,
Florida, after opposing pandemic safety protocols—soon appeared
on Rush Limbaugh’ [[link removed]]s
show. Declaring plans to “start with school boards and move on from
there,” she said of like-minded parents, “It sounds a little
melodramatic, but there is _evil_ working against us on a daily
basis.” _maga_ media—“Tucker Carlson Tonight,”
Breitbart—showcased Moms for Liberty. Media Matters, the liberal
watchdog, argued
[[link removed]] that
influential right-wing media figures were essentially “recruiting
their eager audience” for the Moms’ campaign.

Moms for Liberty, which is sometimes referred to as M4L or MFL, is so
new that it is hard to parse, from public documents, what its leaders
are getting paid. (The founders say that the chairs of local chapters
are volunteers.) The group describes itself as a “grassroots”
organization, yet its instant absorption by the conservative
mediasphere has led some critics to suspect it of being an Astroturf
group—an operation secretly funded by moneyed interests. Moms for
Liberty registered with the I.R.S. as the kind of social-welfare
nonprofit that can accept unlimited dark money.

The leaders had deep G.O.P. connections. One, Marie Rogerson, was a
successful Republican political strategist. The other, Bridget
Ziegler, a school-board member in Sarasota County, is married to the
vice-chair of the Florida G.O.P., Christian Ziegler, who told the
Washington _Post_
[[link removed]],
“I have been trying for a dozen years to get twenty- and
thirty-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was
a heavy lift to get that demographic. . . . But now Moms for
Liberty has done it for me.” Moms for Liberty worked with the office
of Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis
[[link removed]],
to help craft the state’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay”
legislation, which DeSantis signed into law this past March; it
forbids instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in
“kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not

A national phalanx of interconnected organizations—including the
Manhattan Institute, where Rufo is a fellow, and a group called Moms
for America—supported the suite of talking points about
C.R.T. According to NBC News
[[link removed]],
in a single week last year Breitbart alone published seven hundred and
fifty posts or articles in which the theory was mentioned. Glenn Beck,
the right-wing pundit, declared that C.R.T. is a “poison,” urging
his audience, “Stand up in your community and fire the teachers.
Fire them!”

On March 15, 2021, Rufo, in a tweet thread
[[link removed]],
overtly described a key element of the far right’s evolving
strategy: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical
race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving
up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put
all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
He added, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in
the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ ”

Williamson County has some of Tennessee’s top-ranked schools.
“That’s why people _move_ here,” Eric Welch, the longtime
school-board member, told me. He describes the school system as an
economic “asset that pays off.” Williamson County has the
state’s second-lowest unemployment rate and the highest property
values: the median home value exceeds eight hundred thousand dollars.

It is not a diverse place. Eighty-eight per cent of residents are
white. Ninety-five per cent of the school district’s teachers are
white. Until September, all twelve school-board members and the
superintendent were white. A Confederate monument anchors the town
square of the county seat, Franklin. The square was publicly marked as
a former slave market only three years ago. The Confederate flag still
flies prominently in some areas. When the white father of Black
children recently complained about this at a school-board meeting, a
man in the audience sneered, “We’re in the _South!_ ”

In 2018, several parents joined forces to point out that schools in
Williamson County could work harder to be welcoming to children of
color. The group, which became known as the Cultural Competency
Council, included Black, Asian American, Jewish, and L.G.B.T.Q.+
residents. A school-district official who served as a liaison to the
council created videos for teacher training and development, including
one about privilege. That video’s language had clearly been
calibrated to preëmpt defensive reactions: a narrator underscored
that the concept of privilege was “not meant to suggest that someone
has never struggled or that success is unearned.” Even so, the
conservative media pounced: the _Tennessee Star_ said
[[link removed]] that
the video took viewers on a guilt trip about “the perks white males
supposedly have that others do not, America’s supposed dysfunctional
history, and how unfair it all is.” Such views have played well in a
county that Trump carried twice, both times by more than twenty
points. (The Cultural Competency Council has been disbanded.)

In 2020, Revida Rahman and another parent co-founded an anti-racism
group, One WillCo, after Black parents chaperoning field trips to
local plantations were astonished to see slavery depicted as benign.
Rahman told me that some presentations suggested that “the slaves
didn’t really have it that bad—they lived better than we do, they
had their food provided, they had housing.” She added, “I beg to
differ.” At a school that one of Rahman’s sons attended, some
white classmates had mockingly linked arms as if to represent
Trump’s border wall.

One WillCo especially wanted the school system to address the fact
that it had a record of disproportionately punishing students of
color—a recent revelation. Moreover, some teachers used racially
insensitive materials in their classrooms: in an assignment about the
antebellum economy, students were instructed to imagine that their
family “owns slaves,” and to “create a list of expectations for
your family’s slaves.”

On February 15, 2021, the school board hired a mother-and-son team of
diversity consultants to gauge the depth of the district’s problems
with racism, bullying, and harassment, and to recommend solutions. A
conservative board member, Jay Galbreath, forwarded information about
the consultants to influential local Republicans, including Gregg
Lawrence, a county commissioner, and Bev Burger, a longtime alderman
in Franklin. In an e-mail, Lawrence complained to Galbreath that
hiring the consultants was the type of thing that would lead to “the
politicization of teaching in America where every subject is taught
through the lens of race.” He wrote, “These young people who have
been protesting, looting and burning down our cities in America are
doing so because they don’t see anything about America worth
preserving. And why is that? Because our public schools and
universities taught them that America is a systemically racist nation
founded by a bunch of bigoted slave owning colonizers.”

This exchange was eventually made public through an open-records
request, which also revealed that Burger had helped edit what has been
called the foundational complaint against Wit & Wisdom: a month after
the diversity consultants were hired, the parents of a biracial second
grader e-mailed school officials to complain that the curriculum had
caused their son to be “ashamed of his white half.” Burger wrote
of her edits, “See what you think.” She cc’d Lawrence, who
forwarded the communications to Galbreath and another school-board
member, Dan Cash, a fellow-conservative who had won his seat in 2014,
during a Tea Party wave. The county commissioner told the school-board
members, “Here is more evidence that we are teaching critical race
theory,” and urged them to “get rid of” Wit & Wisdom.

Afew weeks later, on March 22nd, the school board’s monthly meeting
took place on Zoom, because of the pandemic. Robin Steenman appeared
before the board for the first time. Wearing a cream-colored sweater
and dangly earrings, she presented herself simply as a concerned
resident who wanted school officials to reject any diversity proposal
that involved “The 1619 Project, critical race training,
intersectionality.” She worried aloud that a recent proposal in
California to mandate a semester of ethnic studies would be “paraded
as a blueprint for the rest of the country.”

Steenman, who appeared to be reading from notes, asserted that parents
in Virginia were being blacklisted for “speaking out.” In
Pennsylvania, an elementary school had “forced fifth graders to
celebrate Black communism and host a Black Power rally.” In North
Carolina, a teacher had described parents as “an impediment to
social justice.” In Ohio, C.R.T. “had to be removed from the
curriculum, because the students were literally turning on each
other.” Steenman cited no sources. She said, “If you give them an
inch”—then changed course. Dropping the “them,” she declared,
“If you give _one_ inch to this kind of teaching, then you’re
gonna subject yourself to the whole spectrum.”

Several weeks later, Steenman started the Williamson County chapter of
Moms for Liberty, building on the e-mail sent by the parents of the
biracial child and harnessing the furious energy of families who were
already accusing the school board of “medical tyranny” for
requiring students to wear masks. This vocal minority had been
particularly incensed at one school-board member, Brad Fiscus, a
former science teacher whose wife, Michelle, a pediatrician, was
Tennessee’s chief vaccine officer. Williamson County is a Republican
pipeline to state and national office: the governor, Bill Lee, is from
there; Marsha Blackburn, the _maga_ senator, began her political
career as a county commissioner there. In July, 2021, the state fired
Michelle Fiscus after conservative lawmakers objected to her
“messaging” in support of _covid_-19
[[link removed]] vaccinations; afterward,
Brad Fiscus resigned from the school board and the family moved to the
East Coast. For right-wing extremists, the obvious lesson was that
rage tactics worked. That August, one school-board meeting nearly
ended in violence when two enraged men followed a proponent of masks
to his vehicle, screaming, “We can find you!”

Moms for Liberty emphasizes the importance of being “joyful
warriors”—relatable women who can rally their communities. A
founder once explained, “This fight has to be fought in their own
backyard.” The organization may have seen Steenman as particularly
well suited to winning over Williamson County residents: she was a
former B-1-bomber pilot now raising three small children. Her husband,
Matt, was also ex-Air Force—fighter jets. They moved to Williamson
County five years ago, from Texas.

Another member of their fraternity was John Ragan, a former Air Force
fighter pilot who’d been elected as a Republican to the Tennessee
General Assembly in 2010. Ragan, a former business consultant from the
city of Oak Ridge, had been listed as an alternate on _alec_’s
education task force. (He says that he does not recall attending any
meetings.) He’d once crafted legislation to ban K-8 teachers from
using materials “inconsistent with natural human reproduction” in
the classroom. (It failed.)

Early last year, as Moms for Liberty was receiving its first wave of
national media attention, Ragan introduced “anti-C.R.T.”
legislation. He wanted to ban teaching about white privilege or any
other concepts that might cause students “discomfort or other
psychological distress” because of their race or sex. The wording
parroted talking points from Moms for Liberty, which parroted Trump,
who parroted Rufo. Around the time that Moms for Liberty members began
showing up at Williamson County school-board meetings, Steve Bannon
[[link removed]], the former Trump
adviser, said on his video podcast that “the path to save the nation
is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.”
Calling mothers “patriots,” he urged a “revolt.”

At a committee meeting of Tennessee House members, Ragan promoted his
legislation by claiming that he’d heard about a seven-year-old
Williamson County girl who had had suicidal thoughts, and was now in
therapy, because she was ashamed of being white. (No such family has
ever publicly come forward.) Two Black Democrats sharply challenged
Ragan. Harold Love, a congressman from Nashville, asked him whether
the proposed legislation would make it illegal for teachers to even
mention “The 1619 Project.” When Ragan replied that instructors
could talk about it as long as they taught “both for and against,”
Love said, “It’s kind of hard to be ‘for or against’
slavery.” G. A. Hardaway, a congressman from Memphis, argued on the
House floor that a law limiting discussion of race, ethnicity,
discrimination, and bias contradicted “the very principles that our
country was formed on.”

Ragan pushed ahead, arguing that “subversive factions,”
“seditious charlatans,” and “misguided souls” were creating
“artificial divisions” in a “shameless pursuit of political
power.” His bill passed. Senator Raumesh Akbari, who chairs the
Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, said, “This offensive
legislation pretends skin color has never mattered in our country,”
adding that “our children deserve to learn the full story.”

Once the Governor signed the bill into law, Moms for Liberty would be
able to devise complaints arguing that certain elements of public
instruction violated a Tennessee statute. Violators could be fined
hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially draining resources.
Steenman, appearing on Blackburn’s video podcast, “Unmuted with
Marsha,” let slip a tactical detail: the moment Tennessee’s new
law took effect, Moms for Liberty would have a complaint against Wit &
Wisdom “ready to go” to the state. Blackburn praised Steenman as
“the point of the spear.”

Steenman also appeared on Glenn Beck’s show. As if speaking directly
to Governor Lee, she said, “Stop serving the woke-left lobby!”
Beck said, “Bill Lee, shame on you!” Lee signed the bill into law
on the eve of the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.

Steenman raised Moms for Liberty’s visibility by putting on
events—rented plants, live music, charcuterie. One of them, C.R.T.
101, took place in May, 2021, before a large audience at Liberty Hall,
a Franklin auditorium in a renovated stove factory filled with shops
and restaurants. A clinical psychologist from Utah, Gary Thompson,
came onstage and declared that C.R.T. engenders shame, which can
trigger depression, which could “be pushing your kids to suicide.”
Thompson, who is Black, showed photographs of his multiracial family:
he and his wife, a white pediatric neuropsychologist, have six
children. Thompson joked, awkwardly, that the overwhelmingly white
audience sure didn’t _look_ like members of the K.K.K. He noted
that he’d voted for Barack Obama
[[link removed]], and said that he
approved of Williamson County Schools’ hiring of diversity
consultants to assess such problems as racial bullying. He opposed
C.R.T., though, because it framed people of color as “victims.”
Choking up, Thompson said, “That is _not_ the legacy that my
parents left me.”

Moms for Liberty often advances its cause by enlisting Black
conservatives, or by borrowing snippets from their public comments.
The organization has posted a video clip of Condoleezza Rice saying
that white kids shouldn’t have to “feel bad” in order for Black
children to feel empowered. Steenman has collaborated with Carol
Swain, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, who vocally opposes
same-sex marriage and once described Islam as “dangerous to our
society.” This past January, Moms for Liberty sponsored a conference
organized by Swain, American Dream, whose branding heavily featured
images of Martin Luther King, Jr. Before the event, King’s daughter
Bernice tweeted
[[link removed]] an
admonition about those who took her father’s “words out of context
to promote ideas that oppose his teachings,” adding that
Steenman’s chapter, having “sought to erase him,” was now
“using him to make money.”

At the C.R.T. 101 gathering, the author of the original complaint
against Wit & Wisdom revealed herself onstage to be Chara Dixon, a mom
in her forties. Nervously holding a copy of her speech, she introduced
herself as a naturalized citizen. (She had emigrated, decades earlier,
from Thailand.) Dixon, whose husband, Brian, is white, recalled
helping their seven-year-old son with a Wit & Wisdom assignment about
a “lonely little yellow leaf.” The audience laughed when she
declared, “It was boring.” A book about a chameleon: “Another
boring story!” Her son had also read about King’s “I Have a
Dream” speech, which was “beautiful and uplifting”; but the tale
of Ruby Bridges and the “angry white mob” was depressing. Dixon
said that in her son’s childhood world “there’s no color.”
(She soon became Moms for Liberty’s treasurer.)

Dixon seemed to conflate Wit & Wisdom and C.R.T. Steenman, in an
official complaint to the Tennessee Department of Education, wrote,
“There does not have to be a textbook labeled ‘Critical Race
Theory’ for its harmful tenets to be present in a curriculum.” At
the C.R.T. 101 event, she took the stage and told the audience that
the threat of “Marxist” indoctrination at school could be
vanquished by opposing “activist” teachers, curricula, and
diversity-driven policy. An m.c. cheerily ended the evening by
reminding everyone that “today’s kids are tomorrow’s voters.”

The Williamson County chapter of M4L held its next big event, Let’s
Talk Wit & Wisdom, at a Harley-Davidson franchise in Franklin.
Steenman had been having trouble finding a venue when the
dealership’s owner offered his showroom. Calling the man a “true
patriot,” Steenman presented him with a folded and framed American
flag that, she said, had accompanied her on a bombing mission in

Moms for Liberty had invited the entire school board to the event, but
the only members who showed up were the group’s three clear allies.
One, a former kindergarten teacher who opposed masking, liked to hug
people during breaks at school-board meetings. The other two were Cash
and Galbreath, both of whom were up for reëlection on August 4, 2022.

Steenman, gesturing toward a large screen behind her, showed the
“findings” of a Moms for Liberty “deep dive” into Wit &
Wisdom. She elicited gasps from the audience by saying that the
curriculum contained books that depicted “graphic murder,”
“rape,” “promiscuity,” “torture,” “adultery,”
“stillbirth,” and “scalping and skinning,” along with content
that her organization considered to be “anti-police,”
“anti-church,” and “anti-nuclear family.” Rhetoric about
“empowering the students” was suddenly “_everywhere_,” she
complained. Without presenting any evidence, she claimed that
elementary-school students now needed counsellors to help them
“overcome the emotional trauma” caused by Wit & Wisdom.

Steenman’s events often strayed far from the particulars of
Williamson County Schools. At one of them, the proceedings were
interrupted when someone walked onstage and breathlessly announced
news from Virginia: Glenn Youngkin, the candidate for governor who’d
crusaded against C.R.T., had won. The audience cheered as if Youngkin
were one of their own.

Steenman’s claims about Wit & Wisdom were so tendentious that
several ardent supporters of the public schools looked her up on
social media. Among other things, they discovered a Twitter account,
@robin_steenman. On August 9, 2020, Matt Walsh—a columnist for the
Daily Wire, the conservative media site co-founded by the pundit Ben
Shapiro—had shared a thread by a Philadelphia teacher who expressed
concern that meddlesome parents might overhear classroom conversations
during online learning and undermine “honest conversations about
gender/sexuality.” (The Daily Wire is headquartered in Nashville,
and Shapiro has propagated Moms for Liberty’s messaging.) In a
retweet of Walsh, @robin_steenman had posted, “You little
brainwashing assholes will never get hold of my kids!” After Eric
Welch and others publicly challenged Steenman about the tweet—and
another one declaring that her children would never attend public
schools—the account vanished. (Steenman agreed to an interview, but
did not keep the appointment. A Moms for Liberty spokesperson, calling
my questions “personal in nature,” largely declined to provide

Privately, certain defenders of Wit & Wisdom referred to Moms for
Liberty members as the Antis. In a sly move, some adopted the seahorse
as a symbol of what one parent described to me as “the
resistance.” This summer in Williamson County, I saw seahorse
stickers on cars and laptops. When I met Rahman for lunch, she was
wearing seahorse earrings. At a school-board campaign event for a
candidate who opposed Moms for Liberty, a volunteer wore a seahorse
pendant on a necklace, alongside a gold cross. At least one person
connected to Moms for Liberty had become concerned about the group’s
motives and tactics, and was secretly monitoring them from the inside.
This person told me, “I’m the one in the trench, and I don’t
want to get caught.”

Many Moms and like-minded parents wanted both Wit & Wisdom and
Superintendent Golden gone. Golden’s contract was up for annual
review before the 2021-22 school year began. (One Moms for Liberty
opponent recently tweeted, “The m.o. nationwide is to fire Supt’s
and hire ideologues.”) At a meeting where the board planned to vote
on Golden’s future, one of the superintendent’s many supporters
implored the elected officials to “hold the line” against the
“steady attack on our public schools.” The Antis were louder. A
man wearing an American-flag-themed shirt shouted, “We, the parents,
are awake, we’re organized, and we’re _extremely_ pissed off.”
He declared, “We’re gonna replace every board member in here with
people _just like me_. Nothing would make us happier than to surround
you with a roomful of American patriots who believe in the
Constitution of the United States and Jesus Christ above!”

The Antis jeered at speakers who expressed support for Golden or the
district’s diversity efforts. They mocked a woman whose daughters
had experienced anti-Asian slurs at school. The mom told the board,
“I’ve heard people say that teaching these parts of our history is
‘racist’ or ‘_traumatic_.’ What’s traumatic is Black,
Latino, Asian, and L.G.B.T.Q. kids going to schools where they face
discrimination and don’t feel safe.” A local psychologist, Alanna
Truss, said, “I’m yet to see a child in my practice who’s been
traumatized by our county’s curriculum choices. I have, however,
seen _many_ students experiencing trauma due to being discriminated
against and bullied within our schools, related to race, religion,
gender, and sexuality.”

Six of the school-board members, who serve four-year terms, were
coming up for reëlection in August of 2022. (The other six will
finish their terms in 2024.) As the Wit & Wisdom furor grew, another
component of the right-wing assault on schools locked into place: last
fall, state lawmakers passed a bill legalizing partisan school-board
elections. Moms for Liberty called the change “a _huge_ step

Educators and policymakers have long believed that public education
should operate independently of political ideology. As the
magazine _Governing_ put it last year, “The goal of having
nonpartisan elections is not to remove all politics” but “to
remove a conflict point that keeps the school board from doing its
job.” For people who target school boards, conflict has become a
tool. In Texas, a _pac_ linked to a cell-phone company which
recently funded the _maga_ takeover of several school boards paid
for an inflammatory mail campaign blaming a classroom shooting on
administrators who had “stopped disciplining students according to
Critical Race Theory principles.” In August, during a panel
at _cpac [[link removed]]_, the gathering of
conservatives, the former Trump official Mercedes Schlapp warned that,
though Republicans were focussed on federal and state elections,
“school board elections are _critical_.” The panel’s title,
“We Are All Domestic Terrorists,” derisively referred to recent
instructions from Attorney General Merrick Garland
[[link removed]] to the F.B.I. for
devising a plan to protect school employees and board members from
threats of violence.

Joining Schlapp onstage was Ryan Girdusky, the founder of the 1776
Project _pac_, which funnels money to G.O.P. candidates in partisan
school-board races. Girdusky boasted that, in 2021, his _pac_ “did
fifty-eight elections in seven states and we won forty-two.”
Girdusky said that his goal this year is to boost at least five
hundred school-board candidates nationwide. He urged the audience to
“vote from the bottom up—go from school board and then go all the
way up to governor and senator, and we’ll have conservative
majorities across the entire electorate.”

Last November, mere weeks after Tennessee lawmakers voted to allow
partisan school-board races, Steenman launched a _pac_, Williamson
Families. Its approach was markedly similar to that of Southlake
Families, a Texas _pac_ whose orchestrated takeover of a school
board in that state has led to attempted book bans. Both _pac_s have
worked with Axiom Strategies, a political-consulting firm that has
helped seat high-profile Republicans, including _maga_ figures.
Allen West, the chair of the Texas G.O.P., has urged Southlake
Families to export its takeover blueprint to suburbs nationwide.
Wealthy suburbs are some of America’s purplest districts, and
winning them may be key to controlling the House, the Senate, and the
Presidency. Anne McGraw, the former Williamson County Schools board
member, told me that the advent of Moms for Liberty “shows how
hyperlocal the national machine is going with their tactics.” She
observed, “Moms for Liberty is not in Podunk, America. They’re
going into hyper-educated, wealthy counties like this, and trying to
get _those_ people to doubt the school system that _brought_ us

Steenman’s _pac_ quickly took in about a hundred and seventy-five
thousand dollars—an unusually large amount for local politics in
Tennessee. The _pac_ held an inaugural event featuring John Rich, a
country singer who had appeared with Trump on “The Celebrity
Apprentice.” Rich, who has no apparent connection to Williamson
County, has contributed at least five thousand dollars to
Steenman’s _pac_.

Progressives and policy experts have long suspected that right-wing
attacks on school boards are less about changing curricula than about
undermining the entire public-school system, in the hope of
privatizing education. During the _alec_ Webinar about “reclaiming
education,” the Heritage Foundation representative declared that
“school choice” would become “very important in the next couple
of years”; controversies about curricula, he said, were “opening
up opportunity for policymakers at the state level” to consider
options like charter schools.

This isn’t the first time that the culture wars have taken aim at
public education. But Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education
policy at Michigan State University, believes that this era is
different, because social media has made it easy for national
operatives to stage “a coördinated, concrete” scare campaign
designed to drive parents toward alternatives to public schools:
“The message, at its core, is: ‘Beware of your public-education
system. Make sure your kid’s teachers aren’t up to
something.’ ”

The timing of “anti-C.R.T.” legislation is no coincidence. Instead
of putting forth a platform, the Republican Party has tried to
maintain power by demonizing its opponents and critics as sinister and
un-American. In the lead-up to the midterms, the G.O.P.’s alarmism
about critical race theory has accompanied fear-mongering about
L.G.B.T.Q.+ teachers being “groomers.” Conservative media
aggressively promote both campaigns. From Fox News to the Twitter
account Libs of TikTok, the messaging has been consistent: many
public-school teachers are dangerous.

Lee, the Tennessee governor, has leveraged this discord while trying
to reformulate school funding: in January, he announced plans to
create fifty new charter schools in partnership with Hillsdale
College, a private Christian school in Michigan, whose president,
Larry Arnn, headed Trump’s 1776 Commission. The plan partially
collapsed after a Tennessee television station aired footage of Arnn,
during a private appearance in Williamson County, comparing public
education to “the plague” and arguing that teachers are educated
in “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” J.
C. Bowman, the executive director and C.E.O. of Professional Educators
of Tennessee, called Arnn’s comments “reprehensible and
irresponsible.” Even Republican politicians backed away. The speaker
of the Tennessee House, Cameron Sexton, acknowledged that Arnn had
“insulted generations of teachers who have made a difference for
countless students.”

Moms for Liberty’s role in the broader war on public schools became
ever clearer in July, at the group’s inaugural national summit, in
Tampa. DeSantis, who delivered a key address, was presented with a
“liberty sword.” Another headliner was Trump’s former Education
Secretary, Betsy DeVos [[link removed]],
whose family has connections to Hillsdale. To an enthusiastic crowd
that included Steenman, DeVos declared that the U.S. Department of
Education—the agency that she once oversaw—should not exist.

Early this year, Eric Welch, the school-board member, was leaning
against seeking reëlection. Both of his sons had graduated—he was
the one who handed them their high-school diplomas when they crossed
the stage. His wife, Andrea, wanted him to take it easy for a while.

School-board service, which is time-consuming and can be tedious,
requires diplomacy, a breadth of knowledge, and the ability to make
complex, well-informed decisions. At meetings, Welch, who considered
ideologues and bullies a threat to public education, often rebutted
misinformation about _covid_-19 and Wit & Wisdom. At one meeting,
he’d pointedly read aloud from a title that he found on a Moms for
Liberty site: the book, written by a follower of the John Birch
Society, referred to Black people as “pickaninnies.” Rahman, the
co-founder of One WillCo, the anti-racism organization, told me, “He
came with _all_ the receipts.” Welch’s detractors had declared
him arrogant and rude; Rahman called him “a strong advocate for
what’s _right_.”

For Welch’s seat, Steenman’s _pac_ backed William (Doc)
Holladay, an optometrist who, like Steenman, had no children in
Williamson County Schools. Holladay had shown up at school-board
meetings to denounce C.R.T. as “racist.” On Facebook, where he’d
railed against pandemic protocols, his posts were routinely flagged or
removed because they contained misinformation. His top “news”
sources included the _Epoch Times_, which regularly promotes
right-wing falsehoods.

Last year, Charlie Wilson, the president of the National School Boards
Association, characterized local school-board members as fundamental
guardians “of democracy, of liberty, of equality, of civility and
community, and of the Constitution and the rule of law.” Holladay, a
felon who believes the conspiracy theory that Trump is still the
“_legitimate_ President,” seemed more like an opportunist. In
2008, he’d pleaded guilty to multiple counts of prescription fraud
and forgery; the Tennessee Department of Health had put him on
probation for “immoral, unprofessional or dishonorable conduct,”
noting that he had also worked “while impaired.” The state
licensure board later added five more years of probation upon
discovering that he’d made “untruthful” claims about
“professional excellence or abilities.” (Holladay told me that he
has turned his life around.)

When Welch heard that Holladay and other figures he considered to be
unsuitable were seeking authority over the schools, he tweeted,
“I’m running.” He told his wife, “I don’t know that I can
walk away and let these people be in charge.” The “Tennessee
School Board Candidate Guide” notes that, for the office of school
board, “the best, most capable and most farsighted citizens of each
community should be drafted.”

During the campaign, Holladay tried to frame Welch, a lifelong
Republican, as a “liberal” for having supported masking and Wit &
Wisdom. Welch publicly noted that he had interned for Senator John
Warner, of Virginia, and attended the Inauguration of George W. Bush
[[link removed]]. Holladay, who had no
military service, bragged about being a patriot; Welch is an Army

In a Q. & A. published by One WillCo, candidates were asked to
describe their involvement with Williamson County Schools. Welch
explained that, in addition to serving on the executive board of the
district’s parent-teacher association, he had “run wrestling
tournaments as a booster fundraiser, spray painted end zones, worked
concessions, volunteered for holiday shows setup/breakdown, built
theatre sets, cleaned bleachers, mopped floors.” Holladay’s
answers: “Speaking out at school board meetings”; “Helping to
lead activist groups in order to effect needed changes.” When asked
why he was running, he said that “the school board has largely been
operating in a manner that runs counter to the conservative principles
that most people who live here hold dear.” This and other answers
betrayed profound ignorance of what a school board does.

Moms for Liberty had been broadening its campaign against Wit & Wisdom
and was now targeting reading materials available in school libraries,
which provided access to the Epic app, a repository of nearly fifty
thousand children’s books. In a local news segment, Steenman read
aloud, “I-is-for-intersex,” from a book called “The GayBCs
[[link removed]],” which was
available on Epic, and said, “What parent wants to explain
‘intersex’ to their child that, at this point, doesn’t even
understand sex?”

Holladay tried a similar maneuver. During a live-streamed candidate
forum, he handed his interviewer a passage from “Push
[[link removed]],” the
acclaimed novel by Sapphire, and asked him to read it aloud. (If this
was the same passage that Holladay later showed me on his cell phone,
it began, “Daddy sick me, disgust me, but he sex me up.”) The
interviewer was Tom Lawrence, a gentlemanly fixture on AM radio who
has been called “the voice of Williamson County.” Lawrence scanned
the text and declined to share it with viewers, saying, “It has
words like ‘orgasm’ in it.” Holladay, noting that the book could
be found in one of the local high schools, declared, “Whoever is
responsible for putting that book in the library should
be _arrested_.” (In a tweet, Welch expressed astonishment that a
school-board candidate would “call for the arrest of a WCS

As Holladay campaigned, he repeatedly invoked the nationwide partisan
divide. In an interview that appeared on YouTube, he declared that
conservatives were fleeing blue states for places like Williamson
County because the left was trying to “destroy the last remaining
refuges of conservatism and patriotism.” If Williamson County
“goes blue,” he said, the rest of the state would follow, and if
Tennessee “doesn’t stay red” it will be “a huge blow to the

On Election Day, Welch, a wiry ex-wrestler, erected a pole tent
outside Hunters Bend Elementary School, a voting precinct.
Holladay’s supporters set up nearby. I arrived to find Welch,
wearing khaki shorts and a “_re-elect eric welch_” T-shirt,
squaring off in the parking lot with a Holladay supporter who was
saying, angrily, “I’ve laid people _out_ for less than that!”

The man, Brian Russell, described Welch as the aggressor—“He
shoulder-checked me”—but multiple witnesses characterized the
altercation differently. Meghan Guffee, a Republican running for
reëlection to the county commission, told me that Russell had
demanded to know why Welch had blocked him on social media. Welch,
trying to walk away, had responded, “I’m ending this conversation.
You’re an ass.”

In a public Facebook post, Russell had declared Welch to be “as bad
as a pedophile.” Guffee said that she’d heard Russell, in the
parking lot, accuse Welch of having “voted to teach third graders
how to masturbate.” (Russell denies this.) Guffee was particularly
appalled that her six-year-old daughter, who was with her at the
voting site, had witnessed Russell’s hostility. She told me, “That
is not how this community does things.”

Before leaving the school grounds, Russell, a painting contractor in
his early fifties, told me that he was angry about Wit & Wisdom:
“When my daughter comes home and her best friend is Black, and
she’s wondering why ‘I’m bad because I’m white. . . .
’ ” This and other comments suggested that his children attended
local schools. In fact, Russell’s three children lived in his native
state of Ohio.

Throughout America, _maga_ types were targeting education officials.
In Maine, a man plastered a school-board member’s photograph on a
sign and surrounded it with rat traps, telling NBC News
[[link removed]],
“This is a war with the left,” and “In war, tactics and strategy
can become blurry.” A member of the Proud Boys ran for a
school-board seat in California. On September 27th, the American
Libraries Association sent an open letter to the F.B.I. director,
Chris Wray, asking for help: in the previous two weeks alone,
“bombing or shooting threats” had forced the temporary closing of
libraries in five states. Tennessee was one of them.

In Williamson County, Moms for Liberty members couldn’t claim
ignorance of the beliefs of some of the candidates they and
Steenman’s _pac_ supported. Williamson Families donated a thousand
dollars to the campaign of an ex-marine who was running for county
commissioner, and who had publicly warned the school board, “In the
past, you dealt with sheep. Now prepare yourselves to deal with lions!
I swore an oath to protect this country from all enemies—foreign and
domestic. You harm my children, you become a domestic enemy.”

That guy lost. So did Holladay. Welch beat him by five hundred and
fifty-nine votes. Welch was surprised that _anybody_ had voted for
Holladay, later telling me, “If you had to _design_ a candidate
who is unqualified and should not be on a board of education, that’s
what he’d look like.”

Candidates backed by Moms for Liberty members won, however, in two
other districts. A Republican who appeared to have no connection to
the public schools beat Ken Chilton, who ran as an independent and
who, the day after the election, tweeted that Tennessee lawmakers’
decision to allow partisan school-board elections had “created a

Jay Galbreath, the board member who had forwarded the e-mails about
diversity consultants to other conservative politicians, had found
himself challenged from the right flank—by a M4L-affiliated
candidate whose campaign signs said “_reject crt_.” As if to prove
his opposition to Wit & Wisdom, Galbreath had posted publicly, on
Facebook, that progressives were “constantly looking at ways to
inject and normalize things like gender identity, the black lives
matter movement, and LGBTQ by weaving it into curriculum.”
Williamson Strong, a _pac_ composed of local progressives who have
long defended the public schools, called for Galbreath’s
resignation, noting, “This is pure hate speech, and it
has _no_ place in a position of influence or power over 40,000+
children and their education. It has no place in Williamson County,
period.” The group, whose leaders include Anne McGraw, the former
school-board member, observed, “All filters have apparently been
obliterated now that he’s competing for votes against an
MFL-endorsed candidate.” Despite the controversy, Galbreath won

A month before the vote, a civil action was filed against Wit &
Wisdom: the parents of an elementary-school student sued the school
board and various administrators in the district on behalf of a
conservative nonprofit that they had just launched, Parents’ Choice
Tennessee. The lawsuit’s complaint echoed Moms for Liberty’s
assertions that the curriculum’s “harmful, unlawful and
age-inappropriate content” represented a “clear violation of
Tennessee code.” If the lawsuit succeeds, Williamson County Schools
may have to find a new curriculum and pay fines. (Citing the
litigation, Williamson County Schools officials declined to comment
for this article.)

The lawsuit may have been designed, in part, to give the impression
that there was more local opposition to Wit & Wisdom than actually
existed. There are eighteen thousand students in the district’s
elementary schools, but according to a district report only
thirty-seven people had complained about the new curriculum. Fourteen
of the complainants had no children in the system.

Rebecca Jacobsen, the Michigan scholar, looks for clues in such data.
She said, of the vitriol toward school boards, “Is this a blip, and
we’ll rebound? Or are we chipping away at our largest public
institution and the system that has been at the center of our
democracy since the founding of this country?” She noted that some
Americans “don’t trust
their _schools_ and _teachers_ anymore,” adding,
“That’s _radical_.”

Moms for Liberty’s campaign, meanwhile, continues to widen. The
organization now claims two hundred and forty chapters in forty-two
states, and more than a hundred thousand members. It has thrown a
fund-raising gala, featuring Megyn Kelly
[[link removed]], in which the top ticket
cost twenty thousand dollars. In late October, a spokesperson for the
Moms told me that the organization—ostensibly a charity—is a
“media company.”

The slick rollout of Moms for Liberty has made it seem less like a
good-faith collective of informed parents and more like a well-funded
operation vying to sway American voters in a pivotal election year.
Steenman’s chapter recently announced a slate of upcoming talks:
“Gender Ideology,” “Restorative Justice,” “Comprehensive Sex
Ed,” “History of Marxism in Education.” I asked Jacobsen whether
she thinks that Moms for Liberty members actually believe that a
curriculum like Wit & Wisdom damages children. “I don’t know what
anybody _believes_ anymore,” she replied. “We seem to have lost
a sense of honesty. It may just be about power and money.” ♦

_Paige Williams joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. She
is the author of “The Dinosaur Artist
[[link removed]],”
which the Times named as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2018. Her
journalism has won the National Magazine Award for feature writing and
has appeared in anthologies including “The Best American Magazine
Writing” and “The Best American Crime Writing.” She was a fellow
at MacDowell, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University._

* Education
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* curriculum
[[link removed]]
* right wing attacks
[[link removed]]
* school boards
[[link removed]]

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