Ron DeSantis paved his political brand — and wound his way into conservative hearts — through Florida’s classrooms.
Get ready to hear about it on the campaign trail. A lot.
The presidential hopeful isn’t the first Republican governor to embrace “parental rights” or limit how race and gender are discussed in schools. But DeSantis has built a long legislative record as an “education governor” amid battles with Democrats and civil rights groups that endeared him to rank-and-file GOP voters. Now he’s planning to pitch that record across the nation in a bid to become the new leader of the Republican Party.
Since becoming governor in 2019, DeSantis earned the nickname among conservatives by codifying a “Parents Bill of Rights,” vastly expanding school choice, allowing for armed teachers, and advocating for new workforce education. He has also rolled back higher education diversity programs, engaged in a high-profile feud with the College Board over its African American studies course and worked with other Republicans to reshape higher education in Florida by installing key allies in statewide posts.
“Because it’s a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke,” DeSantis said on Fox News Wednesday when discussing what role the president should play in education-related culture war issues.
“In Florida, we say we’re the state where woke goes to die,” he later added. “As president, I’m going to make sure woke ideology ends up in the dustbin of history.”
DeSantis’ moves are similar to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.), who won election in a battleground state by emphasizing parental rights in education as Covid-driven school closures frustrated families across the political spectrum.
But Florida now has the most sweeping set of restrictions on classroom discussions about race and gender in the nation. It’s also inspired conservatives in dozens of states, including Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, to duplicate these laws. Here are several key DeSantis-backed Florida laws or efforts that have caught the attention of other red states.
Pushing Parent’s Bill of Rights
The Florida Parental Rights in Education Act that took effect last year and was billed as an effort to give parents more control over what their children learn at school after the pandemic increased scrutiny of K-12 education.
Opponents of the measure have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law because it bars educators from teaching lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity. This legislative session, GOP lawmakers bolstered the law by including restrictions on using a student’s pronouns if they “do not correspond” with their sex assigned at birth. Schools are also now required to pull books that are challenged within five days of someone flagging it.
At least 10 states have measures that mention parental rights, and the majority of states have seen proposals to do so in their statehouses.
House Republicans this year also approved a sweeping “Parents Bill of Rights” legislation, which has become the cornerstone of the GOP’s education agenda. It outlines what parents have the right to in their children’s education, including access to teacher-parent meetings, school budget materials, curriculum and books, and the opportunity to testify before a school board.
Endorsing in traditionally nonpartisan school board races
DeSantis wielded his political influence in school board races across the state funneling more than $2 million into school board races in 2022. His campaign helped two dozen conservative candidates win their races, and the governor has said he intends to continue flipping seats in future elections.
DeSantis’ endorsements have become a key pillar of how the governor has reshaped the education landscape in the country’s third-most populous state.
He backed 30 conservative school board candidates and homed in on races in school districts where incumbents opposed GOP policies. DeSantis’ political committee also sent $1,000 to each of his endorsees, and many landed more contributions from GOP lawmakers.
“For too long, these school boards have not reflected the values of the communities that they were supposedly elected to serve,” DeSantis said in December at a training event for school board members dubbed the “Freedom Blueprint.”
Restricting lessons on race
DeSantis pushed the Individual Freedom Act — referred to as the Stop-WOKE Act — in 2022 which limits the way gender and race are discussed in classrooms and workplaces. Under the Individual Freedom Act, teachers are barred from teaching lessons that would make students “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin.
Specifically requested by DeSantis, the law prohibits instruction on issues like “white privilege.” Critics of the legislation argued that the policy attempts to reframe or “whitewash” history.
“We are not going to tell some kindergartener that they’re an oppressor based on their race and what may have happened 100 or 200 years ago,” DeSantis said last year. “And we’re not going to tell other kids that they’re oppressed based on their race.”
While the law has been mired with legal challenges, the DeSantis administration has been using its law to reject the College Board’s new AP African American studies course. DeSantis has pushed for the changes in the course after slamming the nonprofit testmaker for including lessons on queer theory and intersectionality.
Florida lawmakers have since been weighing creating state-based courses and exams for college credit.
Bucking diversity, equity and inclusion
DeSantis’ latest feat is barring Florida colleges and universities from spending on most diversity, equity and inclusion programs under a slate of higher education reforms.
“Florida has ranked number one in higher education for seven years in a row, and by signing this legislation we are ensuring that Florida’s institutions encourage diversity of thought, civil discourse, and the pursuit of truth for generations to come,” DeSantis said in a statement.
Florida is purging subjects like critical race theory and “DEI-infused” coursework from its schools, and university leaders are primed to take on a wide-scale review of courses and majors offered to students with lessons that assert “systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege.”
The legislation has influenced Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in Texas who have been shepherding legislation to require public universities to shutter their DEI offices and ban diversity training and hiring statements.
Banning school-related Covid mandates
DeSantis’ moves during the pandemic arguably pushed him into the national spotlight and increased his viability for a presidential run.
The governor did not shy away from sparring with schools to get students back into the classroom for in-person instruction after the pandemic shuttered campuses. He tangled in court with the Florida Education Association, the teachers union in the state, over reopening schools and drew criticism for pressuring schools into reopening for in-person instruction by threatening to withhold funding for some.
He sharply rebuked school-related covid mandates, like requiring masks, by issuing an executive order that left mask decisions up to parents. He leaned on parental rights to “make health care decisions for their minor children.”
DeSantis also later made headlines for encouraging students at an event to remove their masks, calling it “ridiculous” and “Covid theater.”
Now that Covid-19 has waned, DeSantis-backed school board members have been purging some educational leaders who enforced pandemic mandates.
Andrew Atterbury contributed to this report.
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