The political commentators focus on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis more and more as a potential Republican presidential nominee in 2024—the best alternative, they say, to the other guy. But never once have I heard the pundits who dominate TV news explore DeSantis’ record on public education. I guess it will be up to us—parents, teachers, and concerned citizens—to set the record straight. Here is a summary of the facts we should all have at the ready. (And just to be clear, this post is not an endorsement of Trump as the 2024 Republican candidate.)
Top Education Rating from the Heritage Foundation — Last month, the far-right Heritage Foundation ranked Florida, the state led by Governor Ron DeSantis, as the overall winner on its 2022 Education Freedom Report Card. If your state gets the top prize in education from the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Heritage Foundation, it does not mean that you have an adequately and equitably funded state system of public schools, a system which requires careful credentialing of teachers.
Here is how the Heritage Foundation describes its 2022 winner: “The Sunshine State embraces education freedom across the board. Florida does exceptionally well in allowing parents to choose among private, charter, and district schools, is home to a strong Education Savings Account (voucher) program…. Among other protections, state lawmakers set a high standard for academic transparency, and reject critical race theory’s pernicious ideas.” “To assess the regulatory freedom of a given state, we consider barriers to teaching, such as whether a state encourages alternative teacher certification and the number of teachers who have benefited, or whether a state largely requires aspiring teachers to attend university-based colleges of education….”
Writing for Salon, Katheryn Joyce summarizes the policies prioritized by the Heritage Foundation’s report card as “key action items for conservative education reformers, from the promotion of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), as a preferred pathway to universal school vouchers, to alternative teacher credentialing, to the expansion of the Anti-CRT movement which now encompasses anything related to ‘diversity, equity and inclusion.'”
Parent Organizing for Ron DeSantis himself along with His Far Right Causes — Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, recently published Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, to follow supposedly untraceable money invested by those who want to undermine public education. Cunningham’s primary focus has been his home state, but last week he tracked the money behind Moms for Liberty, the Florida-spawned group of organized parents known for loudly disrupting local school board meetings: “The group, which claims to be about ‘parent rights,’ has ties to the January 6 insurrection and is expected to provide ‘foot soldiers’ for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Moms for Liberty (M4L) claims the organization was started by moms. But it is hard to believe that three mothers in Florida could start up a grassroots group on January 1, 2021, and then, within a matter of weeks and months, wind up on Rush Limbaugh,Tucker Carlson’s show, Glenn Beck, and Fox News. However, there is a shadowy network of money and influence in right-wing political circles that could arrange that easily. Among M4L’s financial supporters and profile boosters are some of the most influential organizations, media operations, and wealthy donors in the vast theater of the right-wing propaganda machine.”
Cunningham traces funding for Moms for Liberty to the Council for National Policy, which Cunningham describes as “combining vast sums of conservative money, Christian nationalists and their communications networks, and activist groups like the National Rifle Association into a powerful organization.” Moms for Liberty also received a big donation from Betsy DeVos’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen. Another funder of M4L is the Leadership Institute, which was, “the largest donor for M4L’s 2022 national summit and the sole known $50,000 presenting sponsor.” “The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America were (also) sponsors of M4L’s national summit.”
For NBC News, Tyler Kingkade describes Moms for Liberty and its July, 2022, first national summit: “The organization’s rapid ascension—its leaders say it has nearly 100,000 members across 195 chapters in 37 states—has been driven by the appeal of its core issues among conservatives, including battling mask mandates in schools, banning library books that address sexuality and gender identity, and curtailing lessons on racial inequity and discrimination….” At its Tampa summit in July, “Attendees… heard speeches from prominent Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a presidential candidate in waiting, as well as Sen. Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, who said Moms for Liberty-backed candidates are going to help the GOP win governor races and control the Senate in the midterm elections…” Cunningham adds some of the event’s other speakers: Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, former HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and Trump’s former Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” and Parents’ Bill of Rights Bill — On July 1, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law, popularly known by critics as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill, went into effect on Friday, restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation… The law, signed March 28 by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), is the first of its kind in the country… The law also legally empowers parents to sue school districts as a way to advance their ‘parental rights.’ It is part of a push by DeSantis to restrict what teachers can say—an effort that includes topics in race, racism, and U.S. history.”
The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein summarizes the bill: “Instruction on gender and sexuality would be constrained in all grades… Schools would be required to notify parents when children receive mental, emotional or physical health services unless educators believe there is a risk of ‘abuse, abandonment, or neglect.’…Parents would have the right to opt their children out of counseling and health services… Parents could sue schools for violating the vaguely written bill, and districts would have to cover the costs… Florida would rewrite school counseling standards.”
Strauss responds to the Florida bill, which has become a model for legislation proposed in other states, by quoting a statement from the White House: “This is not an issue of parents’ rights. This is discrimination, plain and simple. It’s part of a disturbing and dangerous nationwide trend of right-wing politicians cynically targeting LGBTQI+ students, educators, and individuals to score political points. It encourages bullying and threatens students’ mental health, physical safety, and well-being. It censors dedicated teachers and educators who want to do the right thing and support their students.”
A Book Ban — Salon‘s Kathryn Joyce recently exposed another of Governor Ron DeSantis’s public education initiatives: “This March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a policy… that bans schools from using any books that are ‘pornographic’ or age ‘inappropriate,’ and allows parents broad access to review and challenge all books and materials used for instruction or in school libraries… In combination with other recent laws restricting public schools from discussing LGBTQ issues or racism—including Florida’s 2022 ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law… and ‘Stop WOKE Act’… and its 2021 ban on teaching ‘Critical Race Theory’—this has led some school districts to advise teachers to box up their classroom libraries until each book is vetted. Others have instructed teachers to stop buying or accepting donated books for their classrooms until at least January, to give the district time to hire mandatory new staff to serve as ‘media specialists’ who review each title.”
Florida State Public School Funding Dollars Flooding Out of Public Schools into Florida’s Huge and Growing Voucher Programs — In a collaborative report released in September, the national Education Law Center and the Florida Policy Center document that over a billion dollars is currently flowing out of Florida’s public school funding budget into vouchers. And even more shocking, when students take a voucher the state sucks money right out of the already established school district budget: “School districts have no control over the number of students who apply for vouchers, which makes budgeting difficult. The expansion of voucher eligibility allows higher income families to qualify and removes the requirement for students to have previously attended public schools.”
Here is what has happened since Ron DeSantis was elected Florida’s governor in November of 2018: “Since 2019, the flow of public funds to private education dramatically increased after the State Legislature enacted the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program. While voucher programs are often funded as line-item appropriations in the state budget or through state tax credits, the FES voucher is funded from the Florida Education Finance Program state allocations that would otherwise be directed to the student’s resident public school district.” “In 2022-23, an estimated $1.3 billion in funding will be redirected from public school districts to private education, representing 10% of the state K-12 education funds allocated through the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s school funding formula. This sum is in addition to a potential $1.1 billion taken from general revenue that would otherwise be used to support state services, including education, as a result of tax credits claimed by businesses that donate to voucher programs.”
Consider all these facts when you hear the political commentators describe Ron DeSantis as the best non-Trump. The conditions of public schools across the fifty states—schools which serve roughly 50 million of our children and adolescents—hardly ever seem to be part of the national political conversation these days. But far-right advocates and politicians, many of them operating quietly in the statehouses that set public school policy, are working hard to undermine our nation’s largest and one of its most important civic institutions.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is a political leader actively working to undermine the institution of public schools and to threaten the work of school teachers. Beware!