DeSantis' current education battles keep culture wars alive
Will the Florida governor's latest front in the war on wokeness win him voters in a 2024 run for the White House?
Gov. Ron DeSantis declared war on critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on college campuses, but the conflict has long been brewing. He threw every ounce of his political might and fundraising fortune into pushing anti-CRT and anti-“radical gender theory” policy and backing conservative school board candidates ahead of the 2022 election.
It paid off in spades.
Of the 30 candidates he endorsed that had connections to the Moms for Liberty parental rights group, 24 won their races. Candidates he backed helped flip the Miami-Dade County School Board red; it oversees the fourth-largest schools district in the country.
His focus on education also helped DeSantis in his own reelection. Moving past the pandemic politics of mask mandates and school closings, both he and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist put education front and center in their campaigns. The governor’s education messaging during the election season even appeared to be favored by voters in other battleground states ahead of the midterms. DeSantis, of course, went on to rout Crist by 19 points – or over 1.5 million votes.
And during a Tuesday press conference, he made it clear that he’s shifting his education focus out of local school districts and into the halls of higher education. His next target? Fighting attitudes in higher education that “impose ideological conformity” and “promote political activism.”
“That is not what we believe is appropriate in the state of Florida. Instead, we need our higher education system to focus on promoting academic excellence, the pursuit of truth, and to give students the foundation so they can think for themselves,” DeSantis said. Some experts have noted the shift comes just in time for him to keep building his estimable national profile ahead of a possible 2024 presidential run.
Rolling with a mandate
DeSantis was already making national headlines for the education policy he championed before the 2022 elections. Those policies have been centered on opposing critical race theory – an area of study centered around the idea that racial bias is inherent in many parts of legal and social institutions – and prohibiting instruction on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.
In short order, the governor:
— Signed an executive order banning school mask mandates.
— Signed a bill that banned trans women from participating in women’s sports.
— Supported two bills, one called the “Stop W.O.K.E” act and another dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents, that garnered coordinated protest efforts from several advocacy groups as well as attention from a host of national press.
Most of those initiatives were focused on K-12 schools, but since the calendar year turned, DeSantis was already showing signs he was looking to shift his focus to higher education. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez told the Florida Board of Governors that the state will be looking to “curb” DEI efforts at public colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the DeSantis administration has been collecting financial and staffing data on university diversity initiatives.
The governor’s appointment of six new conservatives to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida also garnered national attention, with Chris Rufo – the conservative strategist behind Republican anti-CRT messaging – tweeting, “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within.” Another of the new trustees, Eddie Speir, made it clear that he wants to fire all faculty and the university’s president.
At Tuesday’s press conference, DeSantis said New College would be receiving $15 million this year and $10 million a year in future years to recruit new faculty and have scholarships for students. More importantly, he added the state would look to cut funding for “diversity, equity and inclusion and CRT bureaucracies.”
After the press conference, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a progressive Orlando Democrat, said those moves are anti-American, anti-freedom and will hurt the state’s ability to recruit university talent. “DeSantis once again showed all of us that his political agenda is greater than the future of Florida. He cries about indoctrination while preaching his own conservative dogmatic agenda and inserting them into our classrooms,” Eskamani said.
Eskamani, who attended Florida public universities and got her doctorate from one, told City & State she believes targeting DEI initiatives will harm Florida’s university system and leave gaps for students that many employers are looking for. “The reason why many of our universities and colleges even have programs and try to diversify programming and outreach is because companies are looking for that,” she said. “We're competing on a global landscape. We need to make sure that our graduates know how to work in diverse work environments and know how to communicate with folks that have different experiences.”
To Jeffrey Henig – a professor of politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University – DeSantis’ shift in focus to higher education is markedly different from that of parental rights ahead of his 2022 reelection. “This anti-CRT stuff, the anti-school closing and anti-masking in schools, those things at the K-12 level can be tied together with the bow of parents’ rights,” he said. “ ‘I want to give the parents the rights, not the teachers and not the school administrators, the right to make these decisions.’ That's a lot harder to sell at the higher education level, because our higher education system right now is a choice system. Parents and students decide to enroll in the university of their choosing.”
DeSantis has also redoubled his focus on anti-CRT and conservative education policy in K-12 so far this year. He has blocked an Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it “significantly lacks educational value.” His administration has signaled its support for a universal voucher program for K-12 schools, something long sought by conservatives nationwide.
The governor remade the Broward County School Board by ousting sitting members, citing "fraud and mismanagement across the district," and putting in his own appointees, some of whom have since been replaced after the last election. His administration also has begun to investigate Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna – an outspoken critic of the expansion of school choice vouchers – for his personal views.
Ryan Ray, chair of the Leon County Democratic Party, said the investigation into Hanna in particular is an attempt to erode local control of public education. “I think to myself, what is this, North Korea? People aren't entitled to their personal views?” he said.
But Roberto Alonzo, a Miami-Dade School Board member endorsed by DeSantis in 2022, said he’s confident that DeSantis and Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. will continue advocating for parents. “They're ensuring the focus is parental rights, making sure that we're focusing on what is right for the children, not what is right for the school systems. We have to focus on the children,” Alonzo said.
Eyes on 2024
DeSantis wasn’t the first to ride an anti-CRT and parental choice agenda to victory. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia won his race by capitalizing on such messaging. Victories for Republicans around those issues in two key swing states helped ensure such talking points will remain at the forefront of conservative national strategy going into the next presidential election.
Alonzo said he thinks emphasizing these issues could be a winning issue for Republicans again in Florida and nationally in 2024. “What we're doing is the right thing for our country and for the future,” Alonzo said. “I think this is going to continue to spread across districts in Florida and throughout the United States, because I don't think there's any parent that wants to put their child in a school that is not focusing on a true educational curriculum.”
DeSantis and his advisers no doubt care which issues will play nationally, as he’s almost universally expected to run for president in 2024; the Washington Post reports his staffers are already building a campaign. National polling has him, on average, a close second behind former President Donald Trump in a packed field, and even beating Trump in a head-to-head matchup. With his era as Florida’s governor wrapping up in January 2027 because of term limits, and with his national stardom currently at its brightest, it would make sense for him to run for the White House next year.
For Henig, DeSantis leaning into anti-CRT serves a critical purpose: Setting himself apart in a likely crowded 2024 Republican primary field that already includes Trump and will likely include other established names like Mike Pence and Nikki Haley. “How it might work for him in the Republican primary race is to give Republican voters the message, ‘I'm really doing things,’ ” Henig said. “In terms of positioning himself versus Trump, it would project that ‘I'm a governor, I converted these kinds of loose ideas into specific policies, and I got them through my legislature.’ It’s a demonstration of strength.”
Alonzo said he views expanding parental control over education and the fight against CRT as still appealing to parents across the political spectrum in 2024 and should continue to be championed by Republicans. “I don't think there's any parent in this country that doesn't want to have access to what it is that their children are being taught, that wants their children to be taught to hate others, or to think that they've done something incorrectly by the teachings in which they're receiving.”
While focusing on that type of education messaging could be successful in a Republican primary, it could be a detriment in a general election. While DeSantis and Florida Republicans found success with it, conservatives in other states underperformed in the last election after failing to make gains in support among independents. Polling conducted after the midterms found that the issue of CRT didn’t motivate voters outside of the Republican base, and even then it did not boost turnout nationally among those who cared about the issue.
Henig is dubious about that strategy for DeSantis and other Republicans in the long term. He said the success so far was paired with the parental anger around masking mandates and school closings. He believes that election results elsewhere showed that the parental rights push’s effectiveness will begin to dim as COVID-19 recedes from the collective consciousness.
“Is this a winning issue in swing states and purple states? When attacks on critical race theory turned into bans on teaching African American history and politics, that's not a winning issue in some of those purple states,” Henig said. “I think a DeSantis Florida strategy would be problematic in a national presidential race.”
Ray also said he was doubtful that DeSantis’ anti-CRT stance and move to prioritize school vouchers would perform well for him on the national stage. “It's not just Democrats, but the vast majority of people, who are not interested in these extreme experiments and privatization schemes,” Ray said. “Florida voters want a strong public education system where teachers and free speech are respected and where students learn to think critically and achieve their highest potential.”
State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, a former state senator who joined DeSantis at Tuesday’s appearance, not surprisingly backed the proposal. “We will be focused on academic excellence at all of our institutions,” said Rodrigues, a DeSantis appointee. “We pursue the goal of education, and we reject indoctrination.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story. Contact Tristan Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood.
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