Florida GOP leans on education platform to mobilize voters

Florida Republicans are leaning on education as a wedge issue during the midterm elections, hoping it will mobilize their base and appeal to independent voters.
Anti-mask protesters make their feelings known outside of the Broward County School Board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale.
Anti-mask protesters make their feelings known outside of the Broward County School Board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale. [ JOE CAVARETTA | South Florida ]
Published April 5, 2022|Updated April 8, 2022

Amanda Silvestri, a mother of two elementary school children, traveled from Palm Beach County to Tallahassee in January to tell state lawmakers she was concerned about what her kids were being taught in school.

“Some of the books we have come across are deeply concerning, and if we can’t fix it, we are going to have to do something or my children are out of here,” said Silvestri, who is running for Palm Beach County School Board and testified in support of a bill that adds more requirements for schools as they select books.

Silvestri’s testimony was a world away from the education concerns of Dawn Marshall, a Hillsborough County parent whose child — alongside fellow high school classmates — was asked by Gov. Ron DeSantis in early March to take off his mask, equating it to “COVID theater.”

“He pretty much said, ‘Take off your mask, it’s stupid,’ and, ‘Take off your mask, your parents don’t matter, even though I’m telling you parents matter,’” Marshall told a local TV station after the widely publicized episode.

Silvestri and Marshall represent both sides of a widening partisan spectrum among parents when it comes to education policies.

In a state run by the GOP with a growing Republican base, pandemic-related policies such as masking, discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity and teaching about race and racism have all been linchpins for parents who’ve become angered with public education — and Republicans are seizing the opportunity.

From curriculum fights to school board term limits — and fresh off the high of a legislative victory — Florida Republicans are leaning on education as a wedge issue during the midterm elections, hoping it will mobilize their base and appeal to independent voters as they consider candidates for legislative and statewide offices down to local school board races.

Florida’s school board elections have been nonpartisan since voters approved the switch in 1998. In South Florida, school board races garnered a lot of interest from voters in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland school shooting in 2018. It led Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed, and Debbi Hixon, who lost her husband in the shooting, to run successfully for the school board and advocate for changes.

This year, county-level races have inspired new candidates like Silvestri and others who have emerged with platforms against “critical race theory” and COVID-19 mandates and have praised DeSantis’ record on education and promoted to voters their alignment to the governor’s thinking. A well-known right-wing activist recently was appointed to the state’s Board of Education and was endorsed on Twitter by the Florida GOP. Esther Byrd, the wife of Neptune Beach Republican Rep. Cord Byrd, previously had made posts on social media that align with fringe and extreme ideologies and groups, like defending Jan. 6 insurrectionists or alluding to “coming civil wars.” She was pictured on a boat that was flying the QAnon flag.

An attempt to speak to Byrd before that story’s publication was unsuccessful. After publication, Byrd denied to the Herald that she supported QAnon conspiracies and described her political ideology as a “constitutional conservative.” She said that her now-deleted posts that referenced a civil war were “hyperbole,” and compared it to comments made by TV personalities on Fox News.

Last week, DeSantis pledged to get involved in school board races, encouraging parents to “throw the bums out.”

“I think you’re going to have a huge amount of voter interest in these August and then November elections for the school boards in some of these counties,” DeSantis predicted at a news conference in Daytona Beach. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been involved in school races before, but we’ll be involved this year, we’re going to help people, we’re going to help our kids.”

Florida Republicans’ interest in education is not new. Former Gov. Jeb Bush made education a signature issue as the head of the state, ushering in more school choice, charter schools and launching the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national advocate for education reform.

For years, the GOP has focused on education during legislative sessions, increasingly expanding school choice, mandating prayer in public schools and other issues that are popular with its base. But this time is different: The pandemic shift to online learning gave parents closer insight into their children’s schooling. And after Glenn Youngkin won his bid to become governor of Virginia on a parental rights platform, Republicans in Florida were emboldened.

“All that Virginia showed, or one of the things that it showed is, yes, parents of all parties care about what’s being taught in the schools,” said David Custin, a Florida consultant and pollster who works with Republicans. “It’s already a national focal point. ... It is a post-COVID phenomenon. And they (Republicans) are responding.”

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Vying for influence

Recent polls nationwide show that voters have waning trust in Democrats regarding education. And the percentage of Republicans who trust K-12 principals to act in the public’s best interest dropped significantly through the pandemic when compared to that of Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center survey from December.

Education always has been a main concern or topic of interest for parents, but it’s “definitely moving up the ladder of focus,” said Eulalia Maria Jimenez-Hincapie, Miami chapter leader for Moms for Liberty, a parental rights organization founded in December 2020 that advocates for more parental involvement in schools and has backed conservative legislation.

Moms for Liberty claims its membership has grown to the tens of thousands around the country in less than two years. This year, the group held events outside of the state Capitol during the legislative session and has become increasingly involved in school board elections.

Despite her involvement in her children’s school Parent-Teacher Association, Jimenez-Hincapie said she was “fairly oblivious to the deeply rooted political issues that stem from education. I trusted the system,” she said. But that changed at the onset of the pandemic.

She and other parents began “waking up to stuff they weren’t aware of,” she said, and they want to know what’s on the curriculum, what’s being taught and who their school board member is.

“It hadn’t been like that before. There’s been a huge awakening in the area of education,” she said.

Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol, Monday, March 7, 2022, over the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, dubbed by opponents as the "don't say gay" bill.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol, Monday, March 7, 2022, over the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, dubbed by opponents as the "don't say gay" bill. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Politics in the curriculum

Some parents have watched with concern as DeSantis has sparred with administrators over COVID-19 safety policies, especially masking, and pushed bans on classroom instruction of certain topics, a step that advocates argue could further marginalize LGBTQ, Black and Latino students.

For Ryan Pontier, an assistant professor of bilingual education and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Florida International University, the recent push to politicize school board elections is concerning.

“My wife and I have made it a point to raise our daughters in a multicultural and multilingual area. As a parent, I worry school will no longer be a place where these (topics) would be addressed,” Pontier told the Herald recently.

Pontier said the politicization of education in the name of parental rights also has been “disappointing and frustrating.” He said parents always have had the right to be involved in their child’s education, such as speaking to teachers, school leaders or district officials about any concerns, which he’s done before.

Florida Democratic Party chairperson Manny Diaz said Democrats have long pushed to make parental involvement a focus in the education system and much of what Republicans are doing with education today is “fear-mongering.”

“It is very easy to be negative, and it is very easy to be hair-on-fire over something than to talk about things that are really important to everyday people, living everyday lives,” Diaz said.

But heading into the election cycle, Democrats are painfully aware that the party has a messaging problem, including on education issues.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a Democrat running to potentially challenge DeSantis, said that despite Republicans’ messaging on education, the state still trails most of the nation in public school funding and teacher pay.

“The fact that Republicans are utilizing our vulnerable children as a political wedge is shameful and instead we should be working together to lift up our children and to make sure that they have an education that’s going to make them successful in life,” Fried said Monday in Miami.

The term-limits fight

Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis criticized school board members for enacting strict masking rules and signed an executive order banning districts from imposing mandates this school year.

Last week, he took another step and signed a bill that limits school board terms to 12 years, despite saying he wished the Legislature had gone further to propose eight-year terms.

The issue of term limits is popular among conservatives. So much so that Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has faced pushback from his own party for being the one to change the bill to 12-year term limits.

“They are calling me a RINO (Republican In Name Only),” Gruters said in an interview early in March.

State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Miami Republican who has been a strong proponent of charter school expansion across the state, and whose political committee — Better Florida Education — has backed “like-minded” school board candidates in the past, says he believes today’s education politics are a product of years of work.

“I do think it’s a wedge issue and I think that for a long time, Republicans have been at the forefront of (education) policies,” said Diaz, who has no relation to the state Democratic Party chair.

Diaz Jr. is among the people who have been mentioned as possible candidates to be the next Florida commissioner of education.

For Miami-Dade School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon III, this year’s push for term limits and to make school board elections partisan further highlights the “continuation of efforts (by the state) to degrade and undermine local authority and decisions relative to (the power) given to the school board.”

“Clearly, there’s an agenda being played, and that agenda began at the onset of the pandemic, when partisan politics began to rise,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information about Esther Byrd.