In years past, national media placed spotlights on the abundance of Florida Man stories escaping the throes of local outlets.
This year, however, they were forced to give attention to one Florida Man in particular: Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis ascended even further to the top of the GOP playbill this year thanks in part to his outspoken rhetoric surrounding education, finding a myriad of success in doing so.
This year alone, DeSantis reformed Florida’s standardized testing system, awarded mass pay raises to teachers across the state, and allocated millions in the state budget towards career workforce education initiatives.
That’s not all, though.
DeSantis also managed to draw the ire of one of the world’s biggest corporations, make unprecedented interventions in non-partisan local elections, and upturn school boards, consequentially changing the educational hierarchy in nearly a half-dozen counties.
Amid the continuing passage of Floridian education bills, the right applauded while the left jeered.
One thing remains agreed upon between both sides, though: it’s all newsworthy.
Let’s look back on some of the most impactful of those moments:
Parental Rights in Education bill
DeSantis demanded the attention of political pundits nationwide when he made clear his intent to pass HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, that “limits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in K-3 classrooms.
The bill, branded the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, sparked national attention and outrage among the political left, becoming one of the biggest ‘culture war’ issues in Florida’s 2022 Legislative Session.
“I don’t care what corporate media outlets say, I don’t care what Hollywood says, I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I’m not backing down,” DeSantis said upon the bill’s signing.
Opponents argued that the broad language of the bill could harm LGBTQ+ children and open school districts to lawsuits from parents who disagree with such topics and discussions.
Supporters disagreed, however, arguing that parents should be the only ones responsible for teaching their children about sexuality and issues surrounding identity.
Those against the bill also criticized its quick passage through the state’s political system, leaving little time for lawmakers to read through its language.
One of the bill’s major critics, Disney, publicly lambasted the piece of legislation, indicating its desire to see the bill struck down by the legal system.
“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” said Disney. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
Disney’s opposition to the measure carried a trickle-down effect, however, as the governor subsequently requested that lawmakers revoke a special tax status that allowed the company to operate as its own municipal government within the surrounding area.
Two days later, DeSantis’ wish was granted.
School Board Endorsements
As educational policy took center stage through the past legislative year, the two gubernatorial general election candidates —DeSantis and Charlie Crist — turned to school board endorsements to offer snapshots of their policy ambitions.
The two candidates jockeyed themselves to represent opposite sides of the educational binary through a series of unprecedented endorsements.
DeSantis in July announced a slate of 30 endorsements of local school board candidates who support the ‘DeSantis Education Agenda‘, giving those endorsed members a de facto party label.
The Governor’s endorsements marked the first time in recent memory that a major partisan public official has imposed their opinion on a non-partisan local race.
Similarly, Crist endorsed seven school board candidates in the lead-up to his ultimate defeat in the general election. The initiative played antagonist to DeSantis’ educational policies and served as a setup for an eventual point of contention.
“Governor DeSantis is politicizing our classrooms, taking away parental rights, and limiting Florida students’ freedom to learn,” A press statement put forth by Crist stated. “Florida deserves dedicated public servants on our school boards that won’t inject politics into the classroom, but rather work every day to fight for the best interests of our students and educators. I’m proud to endorse this incredible slate of candidates to serve on school boards across the Sunshine State.”
Outside of the gubernatorial race, Manny Diaz, Chair of the Florida Democratic Party, took to Twitter to unveil the party’s list of eighteen endorsements of local school board candidates.
With the political pawns set on the proverbial chessboard of the gubernatorial race, some found similarities in the educational posterizing to that of the 2021 gubernatorial election in Virginia.
The winner, Glenn Youngkin, took a similar approach that DeSantis did, rallying against CRT-based curriculum and finding overwhelming success in doing so.
Upon taking office, Youngkin’s first piece of legislative action was to sign an executive order to root out CRT from the state’s education system.
School board meetings have emerged as one of Florida’s political hotbeds, with opposing educational ideologies and cultural politics rearing their heads.
Following the state’s midterm elections in November, the tension of these meetings only proliferated, leading many to wonder what the root cause is.
Per usual in Florida politics, the answer came down to DeSantis.
Bouncing off our last point, DeSantis found wild success in his school board endorsements.
In total, 25 DeSantis-backed school board candidates won elections to serve on their local school board. As such, the DeSantis educational platform seeped through the cracks to disrupt the old guard in local education policy.
In return, school boards are taking harsh stances against administrators who implemented COVID-19 masking and vaccine policies in schools, as well as pressuring school leaders to allow for more parental input in education.
Following the DeSantis-backed-candidate takeover, superintendents from Broward, Charlotte, Brevard, and Sarasota counties were forced out of their positions after new board majorities introduced motions to remove them.
With four superintendents ousted from their positions, advocate groups like Moms for Liberty claim that more changes are inbound.
“New school boards are being sworn in all over Florida, and one thing is clear. They aren’t wasting any time getting rid of superintendents. So far, Broward, Charlotte, Sarasota, & now Brevard— with rumors of others to come,” said the Volusia County chapter of Moms for Liberty.
Education was a chief priority for the DeSantis team in the lead-up to his win over Crist. Political battles over COVID-19 limits, curriculum regulation, and parental roles in their children’s education have centered on school boards, with DeSantis taking on such issues for his re-election campaign.
DeSantis notably and controversially committed to keeping schools open following the first wave of pandemic shutdowns, much to the chagrin of a school district collective including some of Florida’s largest counties like Broward County, whose superintendent Vickie Cartwright was voted out in November.
Broadly speaking, DeSantis’ educational policies have been proven to be popular among Floridians, consequentially leading to an overwhelming margin of victory for his backed school board candidates.
While successors for the removed superintendents have yet to be named, it can be presumed that they will closely align with the DeSantis education agenda.
Bonus: Partisan School Board Races?
Sen. Joe Gruters filed a joint resolution late this month proposing amendments to the State Constitution to require members of a district school board to be elected in a partisan election.
The filing comes just two weeks after Rep. Spencer Roach filed a similar motion in the House.
Currently, school board elections in Florida are non-partisan, meaning that no political party affiliation appears next to their name on the ballot.
In school board races, it was hoped that non-partisan campaigns would ensure that decisions made by school boards were student-focused and solely pertaining to the education system, rather than political considerations.
Under the proposal, candidates for school board positions would have the option to run as a member of a political party, and their party affiliation would appear on the ballot, starting in the 2026 election cycle.
Further detailed in the proposal, partisan primary elections may occur before the general election held on Nov. 3, 2026, for purposes of nominating political party candidates to that office for placement on the 2026 general election ballot.
For the proposal to be enacted, lawmakers would need to approve it to appear on ballots, which would then subsequently require a 60 percent approval margin from voters.
Roach, who represents House District 76 in Fort Myers, unsuccessfully filed a similar measure during the 2022 session. If approved by lawmakers, Roach’s proposal would go before voters in 2024.
Opponents of the bill, however, argue that making school board elections partisan would politicize education and could lead to more divisive and acrimonious campaigns.
They also argue that it could lead to more partisan decision-making on school boards, which could be detrimental to the education of students.