Five years ago, Ron DeSantis toiled away as one of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, he looms large in American politics as Florida’s twice-elected governor—and the Republican widely considered to have the best shot at toppling Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
While many factors have played into DeSantis’s rise, education policy has been at the center of nearly every episode propelling the Florida governor forward. Governor DeSantis has made education a major priority of both terms in office. And he has skillfully tackled some thorny education issues using a two-pronged approach that delights parents who share his views—while neutralizing, or even winning over, many outside his core group of support.
The first, and more attention-grabbing, part of DeSantis’s approach could be called “Defying the Establishment.” The second, and potentially more important, part might be called “De-Escalating the Stakes.” Both merit closer inspection—and the best place to begin is with a fascinating-yet-often-overlooked episode that brought these two strands together.
Defusing the School ‘Mask Wars’
In the summer of 2021, education officials in Florida (and beyond) were gearing up for Round Two in the Great Covid Response Dilemma—whether students returning to public schools in the fall would be required to wear masks.
Round Two had all of the appearances of a high-stakes, winner-take-all showdown. One side insisted on Covid caution. The other emphasized personal freedom and responsibility. No win-win solution seemed possible. Public schools were either going to require masks or they weren’t. If ever there were a Solomonic conundrum crying out for an ingenious “split the baby” response, this was it.
Enter Ron DeSantis.
Governor DeSantis strongly identified with those emphasizing personal freedom and responsibility, just as he had a year earlier in championing a return to in-person instruction (over the objections of public-school unions, public health officials, and most major media outlets). Among other things, DeSantis worried mask mandates would hinder classroom instruction because teachers and students would be unable to see each other’s mouth movements.
Still, the governor recognized that some parents wanted their kids to wear masks, often for understandable reasons (such as having an immunocompromised family member at home). Accordingly, he said schools should neither mandate masks nor forbid their use.
In July, DeSantis issued an executive order to “protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children.” And he reminded Floridians that he had recently signed into law The Parents’ Bill of Rights, which affirmed parents’ authority “to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of their children.
DeSantis’s “mask-optional” executive order surprised no one. But what happened next surprised many.
Several Florida school districts announced they were going to defy the governor’s order and impose mask mandates anyway. In response, DeSantis instructed Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to issue a rule making students who suffer “Covid-19 harassment” eligible for a Hope Scholarship.
Florida’s Hope Scholarship program allows victims of bullying or harassment to transfer to another school of their parents’ choosing, with funds following the student. DeSantis and Corcoran (who had spearheaded Hope’s adoption when he was House speaker) maintained that the law’s language could be legitimately applied to situations when students are mistreated by local school officials over masking policies.
The governor’s move drew modest, momentary, and mostly meh mainstream media attention.
But it sparked an interesting response from some Covid-wary Florida parents who felt mask-optional policies threatened their child’s well-being. They asked if they too could get a Hope Scholarship to send their child to a private school that mandated masks.
“Absolutely,” the DeSantis administration answered, thereby reaffirming the unimpeachable idea behind Florida’s Hope Scholarship—that no child should be required to attend a school his parents consider unsafe.
And with that, the Great School Mask Wars of 2021 came to a peaceful resolution in Florida. Thanks to DeSantis’s deft governing, parents on all sides enjoyed access to public funds to send their kids to a school with Covid policies that matched their preferences. Win-win.
Defying the (‘Woke’) Establishment
Most people outside Florida have never heard the latter part of this story because it runs counter to the dominant narrative surrounding DeSantis’s approach to education policy. That narrative emphasizes DeSantis’s willingness to stand up for underdog parents who find themselves at odds with the progressive Establishment, often on zero-sum issues with no possible win-win solution.
“Virtually every major institution in our country is attempting to impose a ‘progressive’ agenda on society,” DeSantis told the New York Post. “Florida strives to protect the ability of its citizens to live their lives free from this agenda being shoved down their throats.”
DeSantis has challenged the “woke” orthodoxy by:
- Championing the adoption of legislation banning critical race theory and its related tenets which, in DeSantis’s words, “teach kids to hate their country and to hate each other;”
- Signing into law a measure outlawing male participation in high school sports for females;
- Spearheading the adoption of the Parental Rights in Education Act (or, as critics dubbed it, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) which prohibited public schools from teaching young students about gender ideology and human sexuality;
- Leading an effort to curb the Walt Disney company’s special governing privileges after Disney joined LGBTQ advocates in fighting against the Parental Rights in Education Act;
- Denying state approval of the College Board’s new Advanced Placement African-American Studies course over its inclusion of “queer theory,” “intersectionality,” and other problematic content;
- Repealing and replacing Common Core standards throughout the curriculum to encourage greater emphasis on classic literature and the foundations of western thought;
- Vetoing an “action civics” proposal that would have emphasized training in student activism over the acquisition of core knowledge about our political system;
- Engineering a leadership transformation at New College, a state liberal arts institution long dominated (and mismanaged) by left-wing academics; and
- Eliminating funding at state universities for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs that directly or indirectly violate federal civil rights standards.
As this long (and growing!) list makes clear, Governor Ron DeSantis is a man on a mission—to rid his state of the cluster of neo-Marxist ideas that comprise “wokeness.”
His efforts to promote “education, not indoctrination” have earned him broad support inside the Sunshine State, where he won re-election last year by a larger margin than any Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida history.
And Governor DeSantis’s commitment to systemic change can be seen in the fact that he broke precedent last year and endorsed more than 30 school board candidates from around the state who share his belief that schools should not be “a tool for a special interest partisan agenda.” Almost all these candidates won, flipping control of five county school boards.
Defaulting with ‘Normies’
Some critics claim DeSantis is guilty of the very thing of which he accuses his opponents—politicizing K–12 education. But DeSantis says he is simply defending bedrock American values in a time-honored American way.
Just as many of America’s first settlers believed the Establishment church of their homeland was coercively teaching heresy, DeSantis believes the Establishment schools in the U.S. today are coercively teaching “woke” ideas contrary to America’s founding creed, the Declaration of Independence.
Specifically, DeSantis believes “woke” lessons on race violate the idea that all of us are “created equal”—and that “woke” lessons on gender violate the “laws of nature” also referenced in the Declaration.
To many people beyond his base, “DeSantis’s education efforts carry far broader yet much more nuanced and complex support than might otherwise be suggested,” observes Lynn Hatter of WFSU, a public radio station based in Florida’s capital.
For example, some election observers attributed DeSantis’s 2022 landslide to the fact that he drew strong support from conservatives concerned about “woke” issues and from moderates more attracted to his support for ideas like increasing teacher pay. Yet, even here, DeSantis has kept his opponents off balance by shrewdly combining a 2023 teacher pay increase with a “paycheck protection” measure that requires public school unions to recruit members and collect dues on their own time and with their own dime.
“The governor’s top-line promises can sound good, but there’s always a catch,” says Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar. “Governor DeSantis says he’s for teachers’ rights, then moves to take away their rights to teach honest lessons or join together to advocate for Florida’s students and our profession.”
Criticisms like these sometimes fail to land with middle-of-the-road observers. Indeed, Bill Maher has defended DeSantis, calling him a “normal” governor pursuing reasonable goals. “They called it the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” Maher said. “It could have been called the ‘Let’s do things in schools the way we did five years ago’ law. It really could’ve.”
Similarly, a national poll by University of Southern California scholars found that even a majority of Democrats oppose teaching about gender ideology and sexual orientation in elementary schools.
And when DeSantis pushed back against the College Board for “using black history to shoehorn in queer theory,” a prominent African-American social-justice advocate came to his defense. “Frankly, I’m against the College Board’s curriculum,” said Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor. “I think it’s trash. It’s not African American history. It is ideology … sub-mediocre propaganda.”
De-Escalating the Stakes
Still, DeSantis remains a frequent target of many progressives, including history professor David Blight from DeSantis’s alma mater, Yale. Blight has criticized DeSantis’s agenda, echoing a common complaint that the governor’s actions raise the question, “Who gets to control knowledge and education?”
While it is true DeSantis is trying to rid Establishment schools of “woke” teachings, it is a mistake to view DeSantis as someone trying to “control” education with an iron grip.
In fact, in many ways, he’s doing the exact opposite.
Think back to the mask wars incident and DeSantis’s win-win solution that included scholarships for families who felt “harassed” or “threatened.” Rather than imposing his own personal preferences on others, DeSantis has sought consistently to empower parents to make decisions about the education of their children.
DeSantis championed a new K–12 voucher program called the Family Empowerment Scholarship as his first major legislative initiative as governor. It added nearly 50,000 lower- and middle-income families to Florida’s K–12 scholarship rolls. And it laid the foundation for two subsequent school choice expansions, including a monumental 2023 measure that extended scholarship eligibility to all Florida families and converted Florida’s state-funded vouchers into flexible-use Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
Governor DeSantis’s aggressive actions in expanding education choice have solidified Florida’s position as a national leader in education freedom. And his policies have continued Florida’s impressive rise in national K–12 rankings, which began more than 20 years ago with the reforms of then Governor Jeb Bush. Over the last quarter-century, Florida has gone from a Bottom 10 state to a Top 5 state in most measures of student achievement.
In 2022, Florida achieved its highest-ever rankings in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a fact that DeSantis attributed to his anti-lockdown policies during the pandemic. “We insisted on keeping schools open and guaranteed in-person learning in 2020 because we knew there would be widespread harm to our students if students were locked out,” DeSantis said. “[The NAEP results] once again prove that we made the right decision.”
Remarkably, Florida has posted record learning gains over the last 25 years while increasing per-pupil spending less than every other state in the nation. Free-market advocates tout these bang-for-buck results as evidence of the improved efficiencies that come with school choice. But the qualitative results of Florida’s policies may be as impressive. Among other things, robust education choice has lowered the stakes for all sorts of potentially contentious battles fought out in schools.
Wish your child could attend a school that emphasizes STEM? Or the arts? Or core knowledge? Or learning through play? Or the foundations of your religion? Or project-based learning?
In Florida, you don’t have to convince a majority of your neighbors to agree with you. You can pursue the best learning fit for your child, regardless of what philosophy of education your local school district adopts. Currently, more than 250,000 Floridians receive K–12 scholarship assistance of some kind—and nearly half (49%) of all Florida students attend something other than their assigned district school (private, charter, magnet, virtual, homeschool, etc.).
In essence, Florida is offering the nation a lesson in why America’s founders were so wise in crafting the language of the First Amendment. For just as the founders facilitated the “free exercise” of religion rather than its Establishment, Florida has facilitated the “free exercise” of education by allowing parents to determine where their child’s per-pupil dollars will be spent.
Governor DeSantis’s anti-establishment posture, and the mostly negative media attention it has generated, often worked in his favor. For example, during Covid, many frustrated parents from around the country moved to Florida so their kids could get in-person instruction. And this great migration wasn’t limited just to public school families. Many Jewish schools in South Florida saw a significant uptick in their enrollment, thanks especially to a large influx of families from the New York City area.
DeSantis has seen that education choice not only is good policy but also good politics. It has won him a number of unlikely allies. For instance, during the Florida Legislature’s 2021 consideration of a major expansion to DeSantis’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program, a gay teen testified that school choice had “saved his life” by providing him a way out of a school bullying situation that had led him to contemplate suicide.
Moreover, many Floridians who don’t share DeSantis’s party affiliation have found it’s better to be a dissenter in the “free state of Florida” than in any other state. In Florida, hippie homeschoolers don’t get hassled. John Holt disciples are free to use vouchers to send their kids to Montessori schools. And African-American moms unhappy with their local public school can “vote with their feet” and enroll their child elsewhere.
This last group is notable because their votes in the 2018 election were responsible for DeSantis’s improbable, razor-thin victory over African-American Democrat Andrew Gillum. DeSantis won that first gubernatorial election by less than 40,000 votes, thanks to 100,000 African-American “School Choice Moms” who voted for him because they worried Gillum’s vocal opposition to school choice would end programs benefiting their children.
Delighting the ‘Deplorables’ (and others who Dissent)
As the 2024 election approaches, many conservatives are hoping DeSantis runs for president.
But before anyone gets too carried away imagining the implications of a DeSantis candidacy, it may be worth considering what would have happened if Gillum had shown “School Choice Moms” the same consideration DeSantis showed Covid-wary families who wanted a scholarship to leave their “mask-optional” school.
Had Gillum embraced school choice for Florida families, he would have won the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election. He might have subsequently wound up as either the presidential nominee or vice-presidential nominee in the 2020 national election.
Instead, Gillum squandered a winnable election. And he lost not just the “School Choice Moms,” but the “School Choice Daughters” as well. I recently spoke with Hera Varmah, a graduate of Gillum’s alma mater (Florida A & M) who told me she cast her 2018 ballot for DeSantis because she knew from personal experience the life-changing power of school choice.
The number of such “School Choice Voters” is sure to increase as more states expand education options. And, hopefully, school choice expansion will help de-escalate the stakes over school policies in places way beyond Florida as more states seek to imitate the success of Governor DeSantis’s two-pronged approach to K–12 education.
William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a registered independent.
This is part of the forum, “Is Ron DeSantis’s Education Record Anything to Emulate?” For an alternate take, see “DeSantis fights a counterproductive culture war in Florida’s schools” by Cathy Young.
Last updated May 23, 2023