How DeSantis built a conservative following on education
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has leaned hard into educational issues as he burnishes his national profile ahead of a potential White House bid — and conservatives love what they see.
DeSantis, who last year won reelection by the largest margin for a Florida governor in decades, has secured GOP plaudits for moves ranging from his reopening of schools during the coronavirus pandemic to his recent skirmish with the College Board over an AP African American studies course. Now, he’s the only Republican polling alongside — or in some cases, even ahead of — former President Trump for the party’s presidential nomination.
“The party should be open to looking at a different candidate. DeSantis is in the strongest position,” David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, told The Hill this week.
It remains to be seen if DeSantis’s moves on education would prove as popular with the voters at large as they are with congressional Republicans and Fox News hosts, but he has without question made the issue one of the key components of his brand.
Here are the five of the biggest DeSantis education policies that have garnered him national attention:
Handling of schools during the pandemic
The shuttering of schools nationwide during the pandemic began weeks after the first major U.S. coronavirus outbreaks, in March 2020. In some parts of the country, schools stayed closed until the end of 2021 or even the beginning of last year.
Not in Florida though.
DeSantis defied the mold, ordering schools to open in fall 2020, although he did allow parents to choose the option of virtual learning.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla. (Associated Press)
“We wanted to figure out a way to still offer the parents choice but to really put the onus on the school districts to be monitoring this, and when they see students fall behind, to really be affirmative and engaging with the parents,” DeSantis said back in 2020.
He called closing schools was “probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history.”
While the closing of schools over COVID-19 was advised by many in the medical community, it has led to major learning loss across the board in K-12 students.
DeSantis’s decision made national headlines as it went against the teachers unions in his state and the guidance of multiple medical experts.
The Florida Education Association (FEA), one of the largest such unions in the state, sued the governor during the summer of 2020 over his reopening plan. The union argued the reopening went against the state’s constitution because it would be opening schools in an unsafe environment, but DeSantis prevailed in court.
In the summer of 2021, DeSantis signed another executive order to make it so schools couldn’t force students to wear masks in classes.
The order, at the time, went directly against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) mask recommendations.
‘Don’t Say Gay‘
Demonstrators protest inside the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Associated Press)
DeSantis has become perhaps the Republican Party’s preeminent cultural warrior on the subjects of LGBTQ education and critical race theory in schools.
He cemented this role in 2022 with the Parental Rights in Education bill, which became popularly known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
The bill was touted by DeSantis and conservatives as a way to keep inappropriate subjects and materials from younger students, though critics say it stifles free speech and puts LGBTQ youth at risk.
During the measure’s signing ceremony, the governor said he had seen “classroom materials about sexuality and woke gender ideology” and “libraries with clearly inappropriate, pornographic mature materials for very young kids.” He also said some school districts had policies that didn’t consult parents about their child’s well-being.
The bill made it so gender identity and sexual orientation could not be taught to primary school children and that all other grades could only be taught about the subjects in “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” ways.
The measure has been a hit with conservatives.
“I do think it was a good move,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post in April.
LGBTQ advocates, Democrats and the White House, however, have regularly blasted and mocked “Don’t Say Gay” as discriminatory.
“This law doesn’t solve any problem that exists. Instead, HB 1557 has been weaponized by the Governor’s office to launch a bigoted smear campaign to attack and defame LGBTQ Floridians with baseless accusations of grooming and pedophilia,” Florida Rep. Carlos Smith (D), the first openly gay Latino person elected to the Florida legislature, said last year.
Critical race theory, which examines how racism has shaped American policy and the legal system, is typically only taught at the college level. Its opponents say the theory is itself racist.
Stop WOKE Act
The Stop WOKE Act — using an acronym for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” — marked another foray into culture war territory that sparked national controversy.
The law prohibited schools from teaching about historical topics in ways that would make someone feel personally responsible for a past wrong based on their own race, sex or national origin.
The bill was part of a larger effort by DeSantis to ensure critical race theory wasn’t taught in Florida schools, even after the state’s Board of Education banned it.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on July 15, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. (Getty)
“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said. “We also have a responsibility to ensure that parents have the means to vindicate their rights when it comes to enforcing state standards.”
Although signed into law last year, opposition to the act is alive and well today, with the University of Florida’s student senate recently approving a resolution denouncing it. The resolution says the law is “generally vague” and has “contradictory sections” leading to confusion for “faculty instruction.”
DeSantis’s laws aimed at classroom instruction have caused uncertainty among teachers about what types of books or instructions are allowed, with reports of teachers removing books off their shelves and out of libraries for fear of repercussions.
Manatee and Duval county school district officials told teachers in January to remove all books from their classroom shelves or wrap them up due to the new rules and unclear penalties a teacher could receive for unapproved books, according to records seen by The Washington Post.
Taking aim at universities
DeSantis has not only focused on K-12 education but has tackled problems he perceives at the college level as well.
Recently, he has proposed multiple changes for higher education, again largely with an eye on ideology.
“You have the dominant view, which I think is not the right view, to impose ideological conformity, to provoke political activism. Instead, we need our higher education systems to promote academic excellence,” the governor said.
His proposals would make it so state schools could not support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs; boards of trustees at colleges could review the status of tenured professors; and course standards would be changed “to ensure higher education is rooted in the values of liberty and western tradition.”
“On their merits, DeSantis’s constructive suggestions all seem sensible,” the National Review editorial board wrote earlier this month. “In his announcement, DeSantis proposed that DEI was not, in fact, about diversity, equity, or inclusion, but about ‘imposing an agenda on people.’ He is absolutely right.”
The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, said the proposals are the “governor’s latest attempt to restrict free speech and erase the history and legacy of discrimination in America by impeding the right to share ideas and receive information in classrooms is dangerous for our democracy and future generations.”
AP African American studies course
The latest national education controversy DeSantis has thrown himself in was over the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American studies course.
The College Board introduced a pilot of the course in dozens of schools this academic year with little controversy — until last month, that is, when DeSantis’s administration said “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
The state said it would not allow the course in schools as it was.
DeSantis’s administration has yet to confirm whether they will approve the College Board’s altered Advanced Placement African American studies course after the governor’s criticism of some of the subject matter. (Associated Press)
The main issues DeSantis’s office had with the course were the topics of Black queer studies, intersectionality, the reparations movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black feminist literary thought and the Black struggle in the 21st century.
The controversy heated up when College Board said they were releasing revisions to the class. While College Board says revisions were in the works for months before the governor’s complaints since the course was only run as a pilot, DeSantis’s administration took credit for the announced changes, which largely fell in line with its objections and included a new optional section on Black conservatism.
“The College Board removed its woke curriculum from its AP African-American Studies course following @GovRonDeSantis’ objections to the blatant indoctrination in the course syllabus,” tweeted Florida Rep. Byron Donalds (R). “This is a HUGE win for our state & the future of children’s education!”
The College Board’s explanation did not temper the outrage from activists and others when it released the final version of the class, which took out or made optional most of the problems DeSantis had with the course.
“To wake up on the first day of Black History Month to news of white men in positions of privilege horse trading essential and inextricably linked parts of Black History, which is American history, is infuriating,” David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said when the revisions were released in February.
DeSantis’s administration has not yet said if they would approve the course after the changes.
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