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2021: The year state officials took charge of Florida education

Over the last 12 months, the DeSantis administration and its legislative allies tamped down local decisions that didn’t fit their objectives.
Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on as education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a June news conference. The two officials, along with legislators, spent much of the year asserting the state's authority on education issues like masks, charter schools, curriculum and parental rights.
Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on as education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a June news conference. The two officials, along with legislators, spent much of the year asserting the state's authority on education issues like masks, charter schools, curriculum and parental rights. [ Tribune News Service ]
Published Dec. 27, 2021

As Florida eased its way toward the winter holidays, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a fiery event in Sumter County to again criticize the way public schools approach lessons about race.

Surrounded by “critical race theory” opponents, DeSantis declared the need for the Legislature to step in more firmly than the State Board of Education had in June. It must, he said, prevent schools from teaching children and training staff about concepts such as equity.

He argued a law is needed because some local districts have no problem ignoring the threat of an administrative sanction. If parents had the power to sue, DeSantis suggested, perhaps the school boards might listen.

As he had done for much of his tenure, the governor was again testing the limits of the state’s power in the realm of local schools.

As issues grew more contentious and divisive, the administration and its legislative allies claimed the upper hand in tamping down local decisions that didn’t fit their objectives.

Throughout 2021, DeSantis’ administration asserted itself on several fronts — from threatening sanctions when the Hillsborough School Board rejected renewal applications for four charter schools, to pushing a new Parents’ Bill of Rights law that gives parents more leverage in their dealings with school districts.

Perhaps nowhere did the administration flex its muscle more than when it moved against school mask mandates with emergency orders in the summer, financial penalties in the fall and a full-court legal press all year long.

“The word I used for school boards, even before COVID, was ‘ceremonial,’ ” said Billy Townsend, a former Polk County School Board member who has been one of the harshest critics of the Republican-led state government’s approach to education. “This is a state-run school system. ... Nothing made it clearer than COVID.”

Florida’s Constitution sets forth that school boards “operate, supervise and control” all free public schools within their districts. As the pandemic first surfaced in spring 2020, DeSantis, education commissioner Richard Corcoran and other officials gave some deference to that idea, saying they were recommending rather than ordering schools to take steps such as closing for in-person instruction.

Even then, though, district leaders recognized where the power stood.

“I think it’s pretty clear that when he makes a recommendation, that’s what he wants,” Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning said at the time, referring to the education commissioner.

No districts defied the suggested course of action.

A year later, Corcoran urged districts to reopen without mask mandates. This time, some school boards resisted. Declaring the need for a locally driven decision, they insisted on requiring masks for everyone.

The state fought back. Among its arguments: While the Constitution grants school boards wide powers, it also makes them subservient to the state.

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State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne
State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne [ Florida Senate ]

Senate majority leader Debbie Mayfield put it this way at an October news conference highlighting parent rights above school district interests: “You are not equal to the Legislature,” she said in a message directed at local school boards. “Your role is to do what we put in policy to do.”

The courts backed up that position.

In ruling that the state had violated its own parental rights law in setting its mask rule, Leon County circuit judge John Cooper also made clear he did not accept arguments that the state had no right to impose mask rules on schools. In fact, he said, the state has significant power to govern school operations.

The upshot, as Townsend from Polk County saw it, was that school boards have little power — something they are realizing at the same time that increased attention is being paid to their position.

Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar
Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar [ Courtesy of the Florida Education Association ]

“I think we have seen an erosion of that ideal, which was that decisions that directly impact a local community should be made by the people who live there,” Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said in agreement. “You are seeing a governor and commissioner who increasingly are taking the decision-making authority away from the school boards, and polarizing the school boards.”

He pointed to a new push by lawmakers to make board elections partisan again, 20 years after voters decided to remove party politics from the position. He also noted the governor’s stated intention to pour money into board races to support candidates who support his views on issues such as parental rights, race and civics education.

Hillsborough County residents saw firsthand how intent the state is on getting its way. The School Board effectively voted during the summer to close four charter schools that it had sponsored, only to be immediately confronted by state demands to overturn the decision.

If the board did not relent, Corcoran said at the time, he would invoke state oversight and impose sanctions that could include financial and other penalties. It was similar to the approach the state used to enforce its masking rule.

Bay County superintendent Bill Husfelt, one of the state’s longest tenured district leaders, said he respects what the state officials are trying to accomplish. If anything, Husfelt said, the state is requiring schools to do too much without adding the time and resources to get it all done.

At the same time, he said, the idea of local control shouldn’t fall by the wayside.

Bay County school superintendent William Husfelt. (Bay County School District)
Bay County school superintendent William Husfelt. (Bay County School District)

“I would not be able to go into central Florida or south Florida and convince them that north Florida knows more about (an issue) than they do,” said Husfelt, an elected Republican. “Nobody is closer to the people than local elected officials.”

He also noted that, in defending their turf, local officials are doing what the state does when the feds step in.

“The state fusses that the federal government is intruding on them, and the local governments fuss that the state intrudes on them,” Husfelt said.

Citrus County superintendent Sam Himmel, president of the state superintendents association and also an elected Republican, said she viewed the current situation as little more than a change in leadership style. DeSantis and his top brass simply are more visible and outspoken about hot-button issues than others have been, she said, adding that when she has a problem with them, she just calls.

Having a pandemic highlighted the differences, she added.

But at the end of the day, Himmel said, “there’s always people above us making rules and laws, and we follow them. I like to trust who’s in charge. Then we make the best of it.”

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