After the US’s worst book ban, these teachers and kids took down Moms for Liberty
Their far-right school board made national headlines, but they got the final word
Welcome to a Monday night edition of Progress Report.
As we cruise toward Thanksgiving, as deeply flawed as the holiday’s traditional and semi-mythical origin story may be, I think it’s worth further exploring one of the year’s most positive and promising developments: The massive, unexpected success of grassroots organizers in local school board elections across the country, which has proven the viability of a broad, bottom-up movement based on progressive principles that are perceived as obvious and apolitical public interest standards.
Public education is under sustained attack from right-wing ideologues in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when a handful of southern states provided private segregation academies with generous tax breaks. That specific effort has morphed into the school privatization and Christianization movements.
The battle over vouchers and book bans are two sides of the same coin; both represent conservative seizure of public education, and political momentum for one serves to propel the other. After so many years following the lead of national Democrats and letting local apparatus atrophy, activists have quickly built new operations motivated not by a celebrity appeal but instead by local issues that require ongoing engagement.
Proving that free, fair, equitable, and welcoming public education is a societal demand that transcends partisanship and can in fact realign voters is an imperative. In tonight’s big feature, we’re looking at how activists, parents, teachers and students were able to get it done in otherwise very red territory.
Please consider a subscribing and/or donating to keep Progress Report afloat and sustainable. Far-right extremists are financed by billionaires and corporations, who invest in conservative outlets, think tanks, and law firms to advance their interests. We rely solely on forward-thinking readers like you. Please help us fight the good fight.
York County, nestled along the southern border of central Pennsylvania, is consistently conservative and reliably Republican. A rural and industrial exurban region, it has a legitimate claim to the Founding Fathers and a streak of voting for the GOP presidential nominee that goes back to Nixon.
Voters there gave Donald Trump 61% of the vote in 2020, send Republicans to Congress, and a quick survey at York County’s 2023 election results show that there were once again red wins right down the line… except in one local school board election, which displays nine clustered candidates and a blue sweep of the top slots.
Four Democrats and an allied candidate running on bipartisanship won all five available seats on Central York School District Board of Education, seizing a 7-2 majority after three years of tumult that rocked the local community and made national headlines. It took two election cycles to achieve the majority, underscoring the amount of work and finesse that went into the once-improbable triumph, which was among the most prominent and inspired of a nationwide rebuke of rabid ultra-conservatives.
“The only way that these elections could have gone the way that they've gone was to have Republicans break ranks and vote with Democrats, and to do that, we had to have the message and narrative be that shouldn't be a political thing at all,” says Ben Hodge, a theater teacher at Central York High School and a leader in the campaign against the now-toppled far-right school board.
That board came to power in 2019, predating the national movement typified by Moms for Liberty by a full two years. There wasn’t much of an appreciable difference, Hodge recalls, until the following school year. Then, in the summer of 2020, the district’s faculty diversity committee decided to provide resources to guidance counselors to assist returning students in better understanding the Black Lives Matter protests and racism more generally.
The list included a Sesame Street special co-produced by CNN, a children’s book about Rosa Parks, a PBS docu-series, articles from Education Week and lessons from museums and nonprofits. It was standard stuff, useful but hardly radical. It was submitted along with other new student curriculum, including pilots for social studies and English.
The school board, though, zeroed in on the list of resources, tabling the other curriculum because they believed it would be taught by a bunch of woke indoctrinators. That the curricula were designed to correct the district’s falling standardized test scores was irrelevant.
“This was when their alternate reality began to kick in,” Patricia Jackson, a language arts teacher at Central York High, told Progress Report.
For a taste of that alternate reality, check out the video below:
With Covid ripping through the country, the board substituted in-person meetings with Zoom calls, which quickly became a space for the conservatives to make outrageous commentary and accusations.
"Looking at these benchmarks, they sound really great," Victoria Gemma, one of the conservative firebrands who dragged the board to the right, said during one of those meetings. "My concern has everything to do with who's teaching it. It has everything to do with the ideals of the person who's teaching it."
As this was happening, Hodge was forming the Panther Anti-Racist Student Union, which he named after the high school’s mascot. He was approached by colleagues to organize protests, which were first focused on rallying parents and the community; school was still being taught online, limiting students’ exposure to the debate.
Hodge helped coordinate two community protests, one in September and one in November. Both were well-attended, and the beginning of organized opposition wound up triggering the school board’s conservative majority. They officially banned the resources in November, though the district’s superintendent dragged his feet on enforcing until the following August.
Shit Hits the Ban
Central York’s board school board forced the supervisor to send an email notifying teachers and threatening repercussions for using any of the materials. The email was promptly leaked to the local York Dispatch, which blew the lid off the story in an article published on September 1st.
“One of the students came in and said ‘Mr. Hodge, did you see this article?’ And of course I had seen it,” Hodge recalled. “And they said, ‘well, what are you going to do about it?’ And I said to them, ‘It's not what I want to do about it — what do you want to do about it?’”
The Panther Anti-Racism Union sprung to action.
“We started with the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looking at non-violent, non-disruptive ways to help set the message and control the narrative,” Hodge said, “so that we could push back against the this this, this horrible, egregious action and these comments by the board.”
The students wore black on Fridays, rallied their classmates, and began regular protests. They took to TikTok and joined their parents at school board meetings, which had been opened back up to the public. Local news zeroed in on the protests, followed by some national news networks that recognized Central York as a preview of what might happen if new groups such as Moms for Liberty were to be successful in their mission to overtake public education.
Conservative parents, now organized by right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, began targeting Hodge, Jackson, and other supportive teachers. They submitted “Right to Know” requests and dug through their social media posts, sending whatever they could find to the school system’s HR director. There were attempts to hack into teachers’ personal banking accounts, and some made prank calls to Jackson’s 83-year-old mother.
The conflict grew in profile each time the board voted to reaffirm its bans, as famous authors started tuning in to meetings and Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., offered her support via Twitter. CNN invited students from the Anti-Racist Union on air to discuss the conflict. PEN America noted that Central York had more banned books than any other school system in the country.
“It put Central on the map in a bad way,” Jackson said. “This was a cutting-edge district when it came to diversity and people of color wanted to bring their children here because we were cutting edge.”
The silver lining was that the students’ activism and the attention it garnered forced the school board to back down by the end of September. The New York Times ran a story on the victory, which stood in stark contrast to what was happening most other places in the country.
“The fact that it was the kids made the difference, because the board couldn't come after the kids,” Jackson said. “I felt that it needed to be like the 1960s, because the children really led those protests. The media started picking up on the kids’ protests; had it been teachers, I don't think anybody would have paid any kind of attention.”
Please consider a subscribing and/or donating to keep Progress Report afloat and sustainable. We rely on forward-thinking readers like you. Please help us fight the good fight.
Two Years of Tension
The students’ successful campaign to reinstate the books earned national media attention and praise from heartened liberals, but the conservatives in the three townships that feed Central York weren’t ready to make any larger concessions. With Moms for Liberty ascendant and Republicans sweeping school boards nationwide, they still had some momentum, and that November’s election wound up being an ultra-tight affair.
Democrats and Republicans each won two of the available four-year terms, with only 174 votes separating the top vote-getter and the fifth-place finisher. GOP candidates took both two-year spots that were up for grabs, cementing their continued majority.
The real highlight of that election was ousting Victoria Gemma, the GOP’s most outspoken and controversial member. Gemma tried to reinstate the book ban in her last meeting as part of the board, setting a tone of the next two years.
With the GOP still in the majority and other Pennsylvania districts plunging into culture war, there was plenty of incentive for both the board and right-wing residents to continue pushing for puritanical, far-right policies and instigating idiotic fights.
In 2022, a group of four conservative parents began yelling “meow” during board meetings and confronting other parents with specious and stupid allegations that their children were furries. The rumor made the rounds locally on Facebook, with warnings to parents that furry students “could be in your child's classroom hissing at your child and licking themselves.”
Stupid, yes, but it had been reinforced by Fox News’ short-lived obsession with the conspiracy theory, which was clearly coded as a version of transphobic fear-mongering. No formal motions to ban fursonas were tabled, but that fall, Faith Casale, a former school board member did submit formal challenges to three library books.
The leader of the local Moms for Liberty chapter initially took credit for the request, perhaps to shield Casale and preserve her candidacy. Regardless, two books — the novel Push, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie, and A Court of Mist and Fury, a fantasy novel — were ultimately banned by a group of administrators, teachers, and a librarian. With right-wing organizations looking in, the easier way out was to take the books out of circulation.
The decision was officially made this past March, triggering another round of outrage and bad headlines. Fury at school board meetings ultimately led to a significant revision of the overall book ban policy in June, turning a blanket removal into a system in which books were divided into age groups and parents were invited to limit their own individual child’s access.
According to Jackson, only one parent has chosen to do so.
Elections, Round Two
Moms for Liberty held its national convention in Philadelphia this past summer, supercharging the environment even further. The national political mood created a sense of invincibility, and for parents in York County who did not believe that public education should be driven by bigotry, the odds felt a bit stacked against them.
Even so, the constant combat required parents of good conscience to step up to take on conservative candidates who saw an opportunity to launch political careers by making kids miserable.
“You have these people who ordinarily, if things were status quo, probably would not have run for school board,” Jackson said. “But because things were so bad and prepared to get worse, they took one for the tea, and they stepped up, putting themselves out there for the right to have a go at them.”
The rational candidates ran largely as Democrats, but kept the focus on the nonpartisan name of their slate: Citizens for Central York School District. Conservatives tried to re-politicize the race by emphasizing their true Republican credentials, a strategy that badly backfired.
Pennsylvania produced a mixed bag for pro-education candidates; rational parents were triumphant in Bucks County, another one of the most well-known battlegrounds, but in Cumberland County and even other York County school systems, the Moms for Liberty types picked up seats. Going into 2024, when conservatives will try to push wedge issues wherever possible, both Hodge and Jackson know that the battles over the future of public education are very unlikely to be over.
“I think we're going to see some normalcy start to come into play, but Patty has taught me and told many people that we cannot rest, and there’s no plan to rest on our laurels,” Hodge said. “Because I guarantee you in two years, if not already, [conservative activists] are already starting to mobilize and get ready for the next one, so that they can come back and even stronger than before.”
Wait, Before You Leave!
Progress Report has raised over $7 million dollars for progressive candidates and causes, breaks national stories about corrupt politicians, and delivers incisive analysis, and goes deep into the grassroots.
This is a second full-time job, and I’m looking to expand. There are no corporations, dark money think tanks, or big grants sponsoring this work. It’s all people-powered. So, I need your help.
For just $5 a month, you can buy a premium subscription that includes premium member-only newsletters with original reporting and analysis.
You can also make a one-time donation to Progress Report’s GoFundMe campaign — doing so will earn you a shout-out in the next weekend edition of the newsletter!