Ron DeSantis’s Utilization of Florida Schools to Emerge as a Culture War Proponent

by Joshua Brown

Ron DeSantis’s rise to national visibility began within the confines of Florida’s educational institutions, where he took advantage of cultural tensions and applied them to his educational policy decisions.

Under the banner of “parental rights,” the Republican Governor has prohibited teaching on topics such as sexual orientation and gender identity and has restricted what can be taught regarding racism and U.S. history in Florida’s schools. He has exerted influence over pronoun usage and restroom access for students. Additionally, tenured professors are now subjected to regular evaluations, part of comprehensive reforms aimed at controlling what is seen as “left-wing ideology” and “indoctrination” within higher education.

These policies have encountered broad censure from educators and civil rights advocates, but they have also politically benefited DeSantis. As he gears up for the first GOP presidential debate this Wednesday, he ranks among the nation’s most favored Republican politicians, and he is viewed as a strong candidate for his party’s nomination.

Experts in policy and education maintain that DeSantis’s educational strategies have shaped the criteria for being a feasible Republican contender. This will likely influence some of the debate’s proceedings on Wednesday.

“To be successful in the current Republican primary, one must be pro-voucher, anti-woke, anti-DEI, and anti-LGBTQ,” opined Doug Harris, a renowned education policy expert and economics chair at Tulane University.

How DeSantis Emerged as an Educational Leader

Though now known as a culture warrior, DeSantis’s initial years in office showed no signs that education policy or generating controversy would become his trademarks. He started to make a name for himself during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking strong positions on school closures and mask mandates, including a mandate to reopen schools in July 2020, and threatening to cut salaries of superintendents who opposed a ban on mask requirements.

“The pandemic was undeniably a turning point for DeSantis,” noted Carol Weissert, professor emerita of political science at Florida State University. “He positioned himself against educational institutions and allied himself with parents.”

This marked the inception of a series of policies establishing DeSantis as a leader in the conservative movement for parental rights. This theme has also been espoused by other Republicans like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Our education system should prioritize educating children, not indoctrinating them. We are thus actively confronting toxic ideologies,” declared DeSantis after announcing his presidential bid. “I have only begun to fight.”

From Critical Race Theory to Mathematics

A significant aspect of DeSantis’s term has been his commitment to eradicate critical race theory from classrooms. This approach aligns with the actions of former President Donald Trump, who banned federal agencies from conducting diversity training on racial and gender biases in 2020.

Although President Joe Biden later revoked Trump’s ban, critical race theory has become a focal point for conservatives. It is rarely taught in K-12 schools but has become symbolic of systemic racism. Opponents argue it’s used to convince white individuals that they are inherently racist.

The issue has found its way into proposed legislation in 44 states, with 18 passing laws, according to Robert Kim, executive director of the Education Law Center. Florida was among the leaders.

“These laws are causing disorder and confusion in public schools, and that might be the intent,” said Kim. He linked the culture war policies with school voucher policies as components of a “multi-pronged attack on public education.”

The DeSantis administration has rigorously implemented its law, including blocking over 40% of math textbooks submitted by publishers last year on grounds that they violated the critical race theory ban.

Conservative activists like Christopher Rufo have been instrumental in shaping DeSantis’s policies. “He’ll persist with these concepts as long as they continue to forge a political identity that he believes will aid him in his presidential campaign,” observed Jon Valent, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Removing Library Books and Rewriting History Standards

One of the most divisive policies enacted under DeSantis is the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, often referred to as “Don’t Say Gay” by critics. This legislation, along with other laws, has led to the removal of books from school libraries across Florida.

DeSantis has labeled the reports on book bans as “hoaxes,” and supporters of the removal argue that literature with sexually explicit content should not be accessible to teenagers.

In addition to the book-related controversies, DeSantis’s influence extends to rewriting history standards, which other conservative leaders have adopted. He notably rejected a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, deeming it not “historically accurate,” and has further reshaped how gender and race are discussed in classrooms.

Florida’s Board of Education also issued guidelines for teaching African American history that have drawn widespread criticism. Further, Florida was the first state to approve the use of videos produced by the Prager University Foundation in its classrooms, which align with conservative values.

The outcome of the Republican primary will offer significant insight into the future direction of conservative education policy.

“A lot of it will depend on whether DeSantis’s so-called anti-woke agenda resonates in other states,” Valent said. “We may see either a proliferation of similar approaches or a retreat from that stance.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Education

What policies has Ron DeSantis implemented in Florida’s education system?

DeSantis has banned instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, limited teachings about racism and U.S. history, and implemented reforms to police “left-wing ideology” and “indoctrination” in higher education. He also issued mandates regarding school reopenings during COVID-19, spearheaded a pledge to ban critical race theory, enforced a “Parental Rights in Education” bill, and rewritten history standards.

How has DeSantis’s approach to education impacted his political standing?

DeSantis’s education policies have aligned him with conservative voters and made him one of the country’s most popular Republican politicians. He’s seen as a top contender for the party’s nomination and his education agenda is considered influential in defining what it means to be a viable Republican candidate.

What is the “Parental Rights in Education” bill and how has it affected Florida’s schools?

Known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents, it banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms in an “age or developmentally inappropriate” manner. Its impact, along with other legislation, has led to books being pulled from school shelves, affecting discussions on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

How has critical race theory played a role in DeSantis’s education policies?

DeSantis has pledged to ban critical race theory from classrooms, a move following former President Trump. Though rarely taught in K-12 schools, conservatives see it as a catchall for systemic racism. Florida has passed laws against it, and the state education department has blocked textbooks for violating the ban.

What was the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in shaping DeSantis’s education policy?

The pandemic was a turning point for DeSantis, as he seized on discontent with school shutdowns and mask mandates. After initially closing schools, he issued an executive order mandating that schools reopen for in-person instruction and threatened to withhold salaries from superintendents who defied a ban on mask mandates.

Have other states followed Florida’s lead in education policies under DeSantis?

Yes, several states are following Florida’s lead, particularly in rejecting new Advanced Placement courses, such as African American studies, and reviewing course material before deciding if it can be taught. Florida’s approach to African American history and the use of conservative educational materials have also been emulated.

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Sarah Williams August 23, 2023 - 11:32 am

i don’t agree with a lot of his policies, but it’s intersting to see how they’re shaping the political landscape. wonder how this will play out in the presidential race.

Mark Jefferson August 23, 2023 - 5:39 pm

Whats happening to education these days? first, it’s the common core now it’s all about culture wars and banning stuff. Education should be unbiased, this is not right.

James Thompson August 23, 2023 - 7:26 pm

This is an eye-opener! Didn’t know how much DeSantis was involved in the education system. Things are getting heated in Florida politics.

Tom Harris August 24, 2023 - 6:28 am

this article really covers a lot; from DeSantis’s political rise to how he’s using education as a platform. Need to follow this closely, especially with the presidential debates coming up.

Karen Miller August 24, 2023 - 6:56 am

I can’t beleive how far reaching these policies are. Parents rights are important but what about the teachers. They seem to be caught in the middle.


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