With Ron DeSantis stoking culture war issues, school boards emerge as major Florida battleground
The Daytona Beach News Journal | By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK–FLORIDA | May 10, 2022
“The final beating wasn’t really issue-based,” Descovich said of her 10-point loss to Jennifer Jenkins, a school speech pathologist in the county. “She won because the Democratic Party out-maneuvered us.”
“Democrats take education seriously, but Republicans didn’t pay attention. They’re not engaged,” Descovich said, following her defeat.
This year, Florida Republicans are amping up their focus on these non-partisan school board contests, promoting a sophisticated training and broad recruitment campaign expected to result in dozens of conservative contenders entering this year’s roughly 120 school board races, which formally begin with next month’s candidate qualifying.
The goal: Win command of more of Florida’s 67 school districts and unseat board members who dissent from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial education policies.
Lingering tensions of the past two years over COVID-19 masking and school openings have become enflamed by new state laws restricting the teaching of sexual identity and racial history, turning school board meetings into battlegrounds in many counties.
A recent Duval County School Board meeting spanned eight hours, filled with contentious public exchanges over a proposed resolution in support of the new parental rights in education legislation, which opponents label “Don’t Say Gay.”
In Sarasota County last month, School Board Chair Jane Goodwin’s shutting off a critic’s microphone for straying off topic spawned emailed threats after the incident was widely covered on Fox News and a county Republican official tweeted out video of the exchange.
DeSantis fuels school board fires
DeSantis is fueling the conservative push, viewing it as a chance to quell opposition. His approach is simple. He wants allies to control as many boards as possible following this fall’s elections.
“You can throw the bums out in the election,” DeSantis said. “If they mistreated your kids or they didn’t follow the law…you have an opportunity, for many of them will be up for re-election.”
DeSantis sounded that rallying cry in Daytona Beach several weeks ago after signing legislation imposing 12-year term limits on school board members and subjecting most material in school libraries and classrooms to new governmental oversight and approval practices.
The governor said in Lakeland last month that he plans “to be involved in school board races. We’re going to make sure we’re going to be able to support the candidates who are going to be reflective of our values.”
But educators and many board members say they are tired of being targeted, particularly for actions which they say are often mischaracterized by opponents.
“This attempt to partisan-ize our public schools and make it about political loyalty and not about our kids is misguided and will backfire,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a former Volusia County teacher.
“Parents don’t care about political parties. But they do care that their children have a teacher in the classroom, that their child can get to school and home safely on a bus and that there are enough bus drivers to drive those buses,” he said. “They want to be able to get hold of their teacher, and principal when they have a concern.”
Spar said a narrative is being created that cast school boards as “woke and out there,” even though most school policies derive from the state Education Department, whose leaders have been appointed by Republican governors the past 19 years.
“What people are really looking for is that our schools, parents, staff and community are working together to make sure every child gets the education they need,” he added.
A dozen clear targets
Some of the fiercest school board election fights are expected to emerge in the 12 counties whose school boards defied DeSantis’ executive order last year that barred mandatory masks in classrooms.
The state budget approved by lawmakers in March specifically punishes these counties by excluding them from $200 million in school recognition money. Some are counties with sizable numbers of Republican voters and party leaders were antagonized when their school boards broke with the governor.
Those districts are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties.
In Brevard, Descovich said she is “thrilled” by the GOP’s focus on school board elections, and is doing her part to recruit candidates across the state who embrace DeSantis’ parental rights vision.
Since her 2020 loss, Descovich moved on to co-found Moms for Liberty, the organization of education activists which claims 85,000 members across 35 states, including in 27 Florida counties.
Moms for Liberty part of effort
Moms for Liberty are regulars at school board meetings across Florida and many will emerge as candidates during the June 13-17 qualifying week. Many school board races will be decided during the Aug. 23 primary election.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Descovich said of having the governor and other Republican leaders pushing to put an imprint on school boards. “I love that all eyes are now on school districts and boards. People know the names of their school board members and the policies they’re creating. It’s a dream come true for me.”
In Florida, like many states this year, Republicans are relying on the playbook deployed by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin last year to win that Democratic-leaning state. Youngkin tapped into culture war fights over school curricula by promoting parental rights to make decisions about their children’s education.
DeSantis, who is running for re-election this fall, has seized the strategy, enacting new limits on discussion of race, gender identify and sexual orientation in classrooms, and demanding more scrutiny of school textbooks.
When Walt Disney Co. pushed back against the “Parental Rights in Education” law that opponents derided as homophobic, DeSantis last month got state lawmakers to set in motion plans to eliminate the company’s 50-year-old self-governing status in Florida.
Meanwhile, other critics were branded as “groomers” trying to recruit children for sex, by DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw.
Push could backfire
Even some conservatives say such rhetoric could work against the drive to win school board seats.
“I don’t know if they really believe this, the people who are saying or insinuating this,” said Daniel Buck, a senior fellow with the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational research nonprofit. “I think it’s really a cynical term, an easy slur.”
But Buck, who wrote a piece for Fordham titled, “How the Right Can Lose the Education Argument,” warned that such scorched-earth tactics are certain to turn off many school board voters.
“I think parents are pretty united they don’t want sexual identity taught in second grade,” Buck added. “But if you go beyond that basic messaging, you’re going to lose the middle that will likely decide these elections.”
Shawn Frost, a former Indian River County School Board member and leader of the Florida Republican Party’s Build the Bench Committee, has been coordinating campaign training and recruitment across the state.
Frost said his efforts could yield as many as 24 school board candidates this fall, although many more contenders linked to the parental rights theme are expected to run across the state.
Republican Executive Committees in many counties are expected to weigh in with endorsements of school board candidates, said Frost, who said the program he’s guiding has trained more than 1,400 campaign workers, potential candidates and activists since last August.
“It’s a statewide initiative but it’s locally driven,” said Frost, who managed the 2020 campaign of U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples.
A sea change could be coming
Frost said the groundwork is being laid for a political sea change in Florida.
“Frustrated voters of every demographic will come out,” Frost said. “If they’re frustrated with their local school boards, I think you’ll see some surprising results. People who typically vote with the left will come over. Education is an issue that crosses the political divide.”
“If they’re frustrated with their local school boards, I think you’ll see some surprising results. People who typically vote with the left will come over. Education is an issue that crosses the political divide.”SHAWN FROST
Florida Democrats and allied groups two years ago had some success in winning several school board seats, notably in four Republican-heavy counties.
This election season, the non-partisan contests will still draw the party’s attention, said Marcus Dixon, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.
“We’re having a lot of conversations with folks running and interested in running in their local communities and connecting them with resources,” Dixon said. “Parents and advocates, alike, are fed up with how Republicans have politicized our schools, burdening our children’s teachers, who are already undervalued in our school system.”
Descovich’s defeat in Brevard County by Jenkins, the school speech pathologist, was among several setbacks for conservatives in 2020.
A winner last cycle put through wringer
Since then, Jenkins has been a steady target of opposition wrath for being part of a board that split with DeSantis by requiring school masks.
Jenkins was subject of a recall effort and unsuccessfully sought an injunction against state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay. She accused him of cyberstalking for harassing her on social media.
Brevard has continued to have toxic clashes over school issues.
Similarly, Sarasota County, where School Board member Eric Robinson was defeated in 2020 by Tom Edwards, a political newcomer supporting traditional public schools, remains a frequent flashpoint in the culture war clash.
Robinson was a former county Republican chair and is business partner of the state’s Republican Chair, state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota.
Among those running this year is Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Zeigler, an outspoken parental rights conservative seeking re-election, whose husband, Christian Zeigler, is the state GOP vice-chair.
“I think the loudest voices say they don’t trust us, but I don’t think it’s the community at large,” Sarasota’s Edwards said, citing that an overwhelming, 85% of county voters in March approved continuing a property tax to support public schools.
“But the Republican agenda is clear,” he added. “It’s to smear school boards.”
Candidates talk good game
Those parental rights conservatives who have stepped forward don’t see it that way.
Jessie Thompson, who is running for an open District 3 seat on the Volusia County school board, went through the candidate training program Frost is running for conservatives.
“The whole COVID lockdown gave me a time and a purpose to look into everything,” said Thompson, 33, who volunteered at her children’s school library when restrictions were at their height.
She also was a mask-less attendee at Volusia school board meetings, but said she left without incident when refused entry.
“There are some who go all the time and yell at school board members, but to me it’s more important to talk to people before the meeting, before minds are made up,” she said. “Here in Volusia, to me our biggest thing is that there are too many kids not reading at grade level.”
One of her opponents, Justin Kennedy, 51, owns a landscape business and said that too much politics has already been inserted into school board contests. He said that in this year’s races, he’s hoping residents will send a message that hyper-partisan school boards are not wanted.
“We need to come together as a community, not as partisans,” Kennedy said.