DeSantis takes the fight to school boards

Axios | By Stef W. Kight | July 7, 2022

Florida’s Ron DeSantis is blazing a new trail for GOP governors — putting his muscle behind conservative school board candidates who align with his agenda.

Why it matters: School boards have become ground zero for political fights over COVID-19 restrictions, curricula involving racism and the rights of LGBTQ students and transgender athletes. DeSantis, who’s running for re-election this year, is widely viewed as a rising force in the GOP and a 2024 presidential prospect.

Driving the news: DeSantis last month announced endorsements of 10 candidates for school boards across Florida. Some advocates expect more before the Aug. 23 election.

The big picture: Some other governors have waded into education-related contests — though none have matched DeSantis’ engagement at the local level.

  • Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt endorsed his current head of public education Ryan Walters to be state superintendent. Walters, who heads to a primary runoff next month, advocates for removing Critical Race Theory (CRT) from school curricula. That’s the first issue listed on his campaign website.
  • Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin made so-called parental control in schools a touchstone of his winning campaign last year. As governor, he recently tried unsuccessfully to force early elections this year for all nine school board seats in Loudoun County, which has been a hotbed for political wars over public school policies following a high-profile sexual assault case.

Zoom in: Groups withlargely conservative views,including The 1776 Project and Moms for Liberty, are also engaged in school board contestsin Florida. The country’s third-most-populous state — which is also now home to former President Trump — appears to be attracting significantmoney and attention.

  • The 1776 Project, the first national PAC specifically launched to boost school board candidates opposed to CRT, plans to pour around $300,000 into races in Florida, the PAC’s founder Ryan Girdusky told Axios.
  • By comparison, the group has spent about two-thirds of that in Texas, New York and Georgia combined. It’s considering engaging in some contests in California.
  • Politico recently reported that dozens of committees with Florida GOP ties were putting money toward candidates who share DeSantis’ views.

What they’re saying: “Parents across Florida should ask school board candidates and their current school board members how they scored on the DeSantis Education Agenda,” Dave Abrams, DeSantis re-election campaign senior adviser, told Axios in a statement.

  • Abrams added the agenda “serves as a model for the nation as Florida’s school board candidates run and win.”
  • Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former school board member, told Axios that teachers’ unions have long controlled school boards — but that could change because “they actually have people who are fighting against them now.”
  • One national education leader told Axios that governors endorsing school board candidates was “out of the ordinary.” The leader said the pandemic led to a surge in interest in school boards, although they’ve seen some of the political turmoil “settle down a little bit.”

How it works: Candidates endorsed by DeSantis and described as “pro-parent” include:

  • April Carney, who decided to run for the Duval County school board after her kids struggled with school COVID policies. She has raised more than $74,000 already while incumbent Elizabeth Anderson has also raised over $75,000 — hefty sums for school board races.
  • Fred Lowry in Volusia County, who promoted QAnon conspiracy theories and questioned the reality of the pandemic.
  • Monica Colucci in Miami-Dade County, whose platform includes opposition to CRT and protecting “female athletes and the integrity of female sports.”

School board candidates in Florida can also visit a DeSantis website and take a survey to see how aligned they are with the governor’s education agenda. Priorities includes rejecting lockdowns, CRT and keeping “Woke Gender Ideology Out of Schools,” according to the site.

  • Respondents are asked questions such as “Do you agree that students should be educated and not indoctrinated?” and “Do you support the Governor’s efforts to require students to learn about the horrors of communism?”
  • They can claim a non-endorsement certificate that reads, “I stand with Governor Ron DeSantis and pledge to…” followed by a list of education priorities.
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