Over the past three years, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed laws that have limited how teachers can talk about race, gender, and sexuality; barred transgender girls from playing girls’ sports; and greatly expanded school choice, with Republican lawmakers elsewhere often following his lead.
His department of education rejected over 40 math textbooks from K-12 schools after accusing publishers of attempting to “indoctrinate” students.
He’s also committed $2 billion to raising teacher pay and increased per-pupil funding in the 2022-23 school year.
Now he wants to be president. And his aggressive and controversial stances on education are likely to thrust K-12 schools into the election spotlight.
DeSantis announced his run for president Wednesday evening in a Twitter conversation with billionaire Elon Musk, the social media platform’s owner. Many Republicans seeking an alternative to former President Donald Trump are staking their hopes on the Florida governor, who is the ninth Republican to officially enter the race.
“In Florida, we proved it can be done,” DeSantis said during the Twitter Spaces conversation delayed by technical difficulties as the social media platform’s servers kept crashing. “We chose facts over fear, education over indoctrination, law and order over crime and disorder.”
His presence is likely to shift more of the conversation to education in the primaries, when candidates will be vying to win over the Republican base, said Chris Curran, director of the Education Policy Research Center at the University of Florida College of Education.
“Without a doubt, him stepping into the presidential arena ensures that education is going to be a central part of those debates,” Curran said. “What that may mean in the primaries is a greater attention—probably from former President Trump—to education.”
DeSantis influences other candidates
Although DeSantis didn’t officially announce his bid for president until Wednesday, he’s garnered media attention as a likely contender for months. And candidates who announced their campaigns earlier this year have already demonstrated more aggressive and vocal stances on education.
Trump, who did not focus much on education in his 2016 or 2020 campaigns, has made education a central part of his 2024 run. In a Jan. 26 campaign video, Trump claimed that public schools “have been taken over by radical left maniacs.”
The former president went on to propose a platform that would cut funding for schools “pushing critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children,” prevent transgender girls from playing girls’ sports, create a credentialing body to certify teachers “who embrace patriotic views,” “drastically cut the number of school administrators, including the ‘DEI’ bureaucracy,” and adopt a parents bill of rights that would require curriculum transparency and universal school choice.
Each of those proposals reflects policies and positions that DeSantis has championed in Florida.
Even less incendiary candidates, like former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, both from South Carolina, have repeated “education, not indoctrination” slogans and pushed against what they describe as “woke ideology” in schools. Scott also announced his candidacy this week.
“Scott is nowhere near [DeSantis] in terms of his record, but his website is mimicking those tropes,” said David Bloomfield, an education law professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. “It’s ‘God, football, and anti-woke.’”
What does well in Florida might not do well nationally
DeSantis’ education platform has contributed to his electoral success in Florida, where the Republican won reelection last year by a double-digit margin in the longtime swing state. But its success on the national stage is far from assured.
Over the next year, DeSantis and the other candidates will have to do a delicate dance, balancing the rhetoric and views that mobilize the right with policies that will appeal to moderates in the general election, Curran said.
“What we’ll see in the presidential primary is DeSantis, former President Donald Trump, and others pushing towards a very conservative base,” he said. “That may push them to some places with education policy and other policies where, when they step into the general election, they’ve committed themselves to policies that may be less palpable to a wider audience.”
It will also be important to differentiate between rhetoric and actual policy throughout the election. Many of DeSantis’ education policies can’t be replicated on the federal level or may not sit well with voters who prefer local control.
States and local school boards make most education-related policy and budgeting decisions nationwide. The federal government, which contributes just 8-10 percent of school funding, has a limited role.
For example, school curriculum is not regulated on the federal level. The U.S. Department of Education is forbidden from mandating specific curricula and programs. Even states—many of which create lists of approved textbooks—have limited power over what schools teach, with school boards being the primary authority over school curricula.
That means DeSantis would have a hard time enacting national bans on curriculum involving lessons about race, gender identity, and sexuality.
During the Twitter conversation, DeSantis pushed against the narrative that his policies have led to book bans and curriculum restrictions, calling it a “hoax” enacted by liberal media. (Florida’s laws restricting lessons about race, racism, gender identity, and sexuality, and requiring librarians to review school books and remove content deemed inappropriate have prompted Florida schools to pull books off shelves.)
“What we have done is empowered parents with the ability to review the curriculum, to know what books are being used in school, and then to ensure that those books match state standards and are age and developmentally appropriate,” he said.
“I think DeSantis has a problem by making education a state and a federal issue, taking away local control,” Bloomfield said. “Americans, and particularly suburban Americans, love their local control.”
Republicans have historically struggled with the issue of local control when it comes to school choice, a popular policy among all of the conservative candidates in the presidential race so far. Many are championing education savings account policies that direct state per-pupil funds to parents to spend on any educational expense, including tuition for private schools.
While lawmakers in a number of states have been successful in passing versions of that policy, getting a national program off the ground remains difficult, as voters may see it as an attack on their local schools.
“Localities losing state aid to private schools because of school choice, losing their curricular discretion and their use of particular books, while that has been successful in Florida, it isn’t necessarily going to be popular on the national stage,” Bloomfield said.
How Biden will likely respond
President Joe Biden and the other Democrats in the presidential race will likely push against DeSantis’ narrative that schools have become places for liberal indoctrination.
That could take a number of different forms, Curran said. For one, Biden will likely attack conservative education policies, like school choice expansions, curriculum restrictions, book bans, and limits to LGBTQ+ student rights.
But the president would also be wise to try to appeal to parents and provide clear policy objectives rather than just opposition to the Republican agenda, Curran said.
“What is potentially needed from President Biden and the Democrats’ side is a strong articulation of what their priorities for education are in ways that help bring voters around,” he said. “In other words, charting a path that’s more than just criticism of the opponent but one that provides a proactive view of where they may envision the future of education policy going at the federal level.”