Pennsylvanians are fighting book bans and far-right extremism in schools - TAI News
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This is part three of a three-part series on book bans in Pennsylvania.

Ariel Franchak, an educator and reading specialist who lives outside of Harrisburg, vividly remembers an eighth grade student of hers whose life was changed by the book “The Hate U Give.”

That student had loathed reading, and she resented having to go to Franchak for help with literacy skills. Then Franchak gave her the book, which the author, Angie Thomas, explains was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and explores institutionalized racism and police brutality.

“She could not put down ‘The Hate U Give,’” Franchak said. “And she read it in four days, and it’s a pretty thick book.”

“She ended up loving ‘The Hate U Give,’ and then from there, I could recommend other books that she might like,” Franchak continued. “She did wind up reading quite a few books because of ‘The Hate U Give.’”

A recipient of numerous awards, Thomas’ book topped the New York Times young adult bestseller list for 50 consecutive weeks. But its explorations of racism and police brutality have made it a target for far-right groups such as Moms for Liberty. In recent years, the book has been banned in schools in Pennsylvania and other states across the country, according to PEN America, a human rights group that works to protect writers and fights book bans nationwide.

“The Hate U Give” is far from alone in being banned, and right-wing groups have intensified their efforts to pull thousands of books — many of which center people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals — from schools and public libraries throughout the country. Advocates and Democratic lawmakers describe the book ban movement as a growing effort by right-wing leaders and organizations to undermine the country’s public education system, attack LGBTQ+ youth and people of color, and generally amass power for the far right. Right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education and Republican lawmakers try to achieve this in part by promoting the false idea that public schools and libraries are filled with inappropriate and sexual content, in an effort to empty library shelves of books that delve into systemic racism and white supremacy or feature LGBTQ+ characters.

“Extremist politicians and outside groups who want to undermine public education are behind these efforts,” Ronna Dewey, the Pennsylvania program director for Red Wine and Blue, wrote to the Pennsylvania Independent. “Groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education are often used as the messengers at school board meetings and state legislative hearings to call for these bans but these aren’t the only groups behind book bans. The ultimate goal is to dismantle public education and get funding for private and religious schools that are not inclusive of all children and families.”

Red Wine and Blue is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness around book bans nationwide as part of its work to engage women in politics.

This push against public education has, to a degree, worked for those on the political right who favor censorship and oppose a safe learning environment for all students. Book bans and challenges have soared in recent years. In Pennsylvania, 642 books have been banned in public school districts since 2021, according to PEN America. As Moms for Liberty and other right-wing groups continue their attacks on public schools, homeschooling rates have also skyrocketed nationwide. Homeschool enrollment in Pennsylvania jumped by 62% between 2018 and 2023, according to a Washington Post investigation.

However, resistance to book bans and the overall movement against public education is quickly mobilizing as parents, educators, Democratic lawmakers, and other advocates form coalitions to defeat far-right extremism and build an educational landscape — and a society in general — that is equitable and inclusive.

Ariel Franchak of Stop Moms for Liberty.
Ariel Franchak of Stop Moms for Liberty. #(Ariel Franchak)

Franchak, for example, is a member of Stop Moms for Liberty. The nearly two-year-old organization has 2,500-plus members in Pennsylvania and thousands more across the country who aim to do exactly as its name says: topple Moms for Liberty, one of the most influential forces behind book bans in the state and country.

“I got into Stop Moms for Liberty because of the book bans, because I’m a reading specialist and I believe kids should be able to read all the books and about kids that are like them and different from them and kids who are Black or kids who are part of the LGBTQ community, kids who have two moms, kids who are transgender,” Franchak said.

Moms for Liberty did not respond to a request for comment for this story

The Southern Poverty Law Center this year designated Moms for Liberty an extremist organization that uses its social media to target educators, attack public education, and promote anti-LGBTQ+ hate and conspiracy theories. 

“Moms for Liberty is destroying everything good about public education,” Franchak said.

Those pushing for book bans have begun to meet their match, educators and advocates said.

The vitriol Moms for Liberty and others have used in demanding book bans has led to threats of violence against teachers, librarians and school board members, including bomb threats. The group regularly wages campaigns of hate and harassment against LGBTQ+ individuals, librarians, teachers, and others that result in people fearing for their safety and lives.

Parents, teachers, and community members are irate that LGBTQ+ children are being targeted for simply existing, and they are distraught that right-wing individuals and groups are dismantling diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. This mounting anger and frustration, Stop Moms for Liberty founder Liz Mikitarian said, is translating to major defeats at the polls for Moms for Liberty and right-wing candidates, including in Pennsylvania’s Nov. 7 election.

“Thank God that people are starting to wake up to a lot of what’s happening,” said Mikitarian, a retired kindergarten teacher who lives in Brevard County in Florida, where Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021.

One district that saw a drastic change in the partisan makeup of its school board this past election was Bucks County’s Pennridge, where Democrats won all five of the open seats on a board previously dominated by far-right members. That district, which was accused of discriminating against Black and LGBTQ+ students in a civil rights complaint filed this week, pushed bans on already-vetted books from the district’s libraries; barred teachers from flying pride flags; instructed teachers not to talk about the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; and adopted a new social studies curriculum crafted by a consultant with ties to Moms for Liberty and the far-right Hillsdale College and widely condemned by teachers.

Thousands of Stop Moms for Liberty members are battling far-right extremism across the country.
Thousands of Stop Moms for Liberty members are battling far-right extremism across the country. (Stop Moms for Liberty)

Parents have this year formed a nonpartisan group, the Ridge Network, to combat extremism in a district that has turned increasingly far-right in the wake of the Trump presidency. That group, which is about 1,700 members strong on Facebook, has worked to inform parents and community members about hateful policies pushed and implemented by the board. Those education efforts paid off in the election.

“Generally in this area, these conversations around the school boards only pick up around campaign time, every two years,” said Adrienne King, one of the Ridge Network’s founders, a mother of two children in Pennridge and the founder of a nonprofit working with children and families dealing with harassment, discrimination and bullying. “What the Ridge Network is positioning ourselves to do is to keep the conversation and focus going even between campaign years so that people are aware, people are engaged, and that we’re really understanding what’s going on.”

That kind of education is crucial to defeat far-right movement in schools, advocates said.

“We fight back by educating the community about how books and materials are selected in our schools, as well as teaching how to fight misinformation and disinformation,” Dewey of Red Wine and Blue told the Pennsylvania Independent in an email. “Extremists use buzz words that sound reasonable, like ‘age appropriate materials,’ ‘back to basics,’ ‘school transparency,’ ‘parents rights,’ and ‘neutral environment’ to mislead parents into thinking that teachers and librarians are trying to harm children — but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“At Red Wine and Blue, we teach suburban women how to form their own grassroots groups, how to speak up at school board meetings, and how to fight that disinformation by using their voice,” Dewey continued.

Stop Moms for Liberty leaders also emphasized the fight against disinformation.

“It’s really just this disingenuous fear thing that they’ve put in parents’ minds, and honestly, some of the stuff that they’ve done and they’ve put out, you know, if I didn’t know any better, I would be up in arms too,” Mikitarian said. “And I would say, Oh my God; my child’s going to have that in their bookbag, so I would have fallen into this whole fear campaign that they have prompted.”

Efforts to combat extremism can often be emotionally overwhelming and depleting, which makes it all the more important for people on the front lines of this battle to feel as though they have allies, advocates said.

“This is exhausting,” King said. “I have a full-time job. I am a mother; I am a wife; like I said, I have my own nonprofit organization. And this has almost become like another full-time job.”

Mikitarian said those opposing right-wing efforts are increasingly making their voices heard.

“So on paper, it looks like they’ve got all of this quote-unquote, as they say, ‘the majority,’ and they simply don’t,” Mikitarian said. “The people on, I’ll call it our side of issues, who don’t want books banned, who don’t want student rights eliminated, who want full inclusion, who don’t want students with disabilities pushed out of our school system — we are the majority.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.