10 times Ron DeSantis changed Florida education

Here’s a timeline of the big education decisions made by DeSantis.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to teachers at a Florida Teacher of the Year Conference at the J.W. Marriott Orlando on July 12, 2022.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to teachers at a Florida Teacher of the Year Conference at the J.W. Marriott Orlando on July 12, 2022. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Feb. 8|Updated Feb. 23

Every week, Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to make national education news.

Here are 10 important education moments from DeSantis’ tenure so far — in chronological order.

The governor dives in on school choice

“If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education,” DeSantis said in 2019.

Even for Florida governors, who’ve all supported school choice programs in the 21st century, that was a radical stance. It showed how strongly the governor supports giving students scholarships to attend private schools. Later that year, DeSantis approved a bill creating a taxpayer-funded voucher system. (Previous school choice models relied on tax credit-funded scholarships.)

Proponents of the voucher approach — which each of Florida’s Republican governors have supported to one degree or another since Jeb Bush in 1999 — say it gives students in poor-performing school districts the ability to seek a better education. Critics say the tax money could be better spent improving the public school system as it already exists.

Although DeSantis has not yet gotten on board with the latest state GOP proposal to make voucher programs accessible to all Florida students, he did sign a series of major voucher expansions in recent years.

Florida eliminates Common Core

At one point, Florida leaders were big fans of the Common Core set of education standards. More than a decade ago, Bush helped lead the effort to create the standards and get them adopted by some 45 states.

However, by the time of the tea party protests in the early years of President Barack Obama’s administration, conservatives had turned against the standards, which they said were tantamount to a national education curriculum.

In early 2020, DeSantis announced he had gotten rid of Common Core and replaced it with a new set of standards, the Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, or BEST. DeSantis said the new standards would offer a more straightforward curriculum that is more focused on American history and the classics.

DeSantis’ COVID school fights

In March 2020, like governors all over the country, DeSantis ordered schools closed for in-person instruction in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But in what has become perhaps the signature decision of his first term, the DeSantis administration announced in July — amid a surge in documented cases of the coronavirus — that it would mandate schools to reopen for in-person instruction at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

The reopening was condemned by the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, which argued the governor did not give districts a chance to reopen safely. But by Sept. 24, 2020, nearly half of all students were back in the classroom for in-person instruction, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. By the next year, even many of DeSantis’ Democratic critics were admitting he made the right call.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The next year, as the delta wave of the coronavirus raged through Florida in the late summer, DeSantis set his sights on mask mandates in Florida schools.

The governor sided with parents who opposed the mandates against the advice of the CDC. The governor issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools. Several districts defied him, leading the state to fine some school board members. The Biden administration entered the fray, moving to reimburse school officials who had their pay docked by the state during the mask mandate fight.

Studies show mixed evidence about the effectiveness of mask mandates in schools.

Transgender athletes get banned from girls’ sports

A bill to ban transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ scholastic sports looked dead in the Legislature.

But in the final days of the 2021 legislative session, the measure was attached to a largely unrelated bill, then hastily passed by Republican lawmakers. Advocates hoped for a DeSantis veto.

They did not get one.

Instead, DeSantis held a contentious bill-signing ceremony at which he discussed the need to protect Florida girls from unfair competition in the form of competitors who may have been born male. This law is being litigated in the courts.

Math textbooks get banned

DeSantis made national news in 2022 when his Department of Education banned more than 40% of the textbooks submitted to the state by publishers for review. At the time, the department said the materials violated state laws prohibiting critical race theory, Common Core curriculum and social-emotional learning. (The latter term refers to a set of lessons that encourage the development of emotional skills along with more traditional curriculum.)

The state later allowed 43 of the 54 banned textbooks back into schools after claiming the publishers had removed objectionable material. But the state never provided specifics on why previously banned textbooks had been allowed back.

DeSantis signs the Stop Woke Act

Ridding classrooms of “critical race theory” has been a major theme of DeSantis’ tenure. The term, which refers to an academic examination of institutional racism in the United States, usually applies to college or graduate studies.

Thanks in large part to the activism of the writer Christopher Rufo, critical race theory has also in recent years become a catchall term for instruction on race.

In 2021, the Florida Board of Education passed a rule banning critical race theory — although officials acknowledged at the time it was not being taught in younger grades.

DeSantis’ efforts against race-based instruction continued with 2022′s Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke Act. That bill, which DeSantis signed with Rufo in attendance, banned employment or school instruction that forces a person of one race to feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions taken by people of their same race in the past.

A federal judge nominated by then-President Barack Obama blocked the enforcement of this law in higher education and the workplace, saying in one ruling it was “positively dystopian.”

DeSantis signs Parental Rights in Education bill

One of the most contentious legislative fights of DeSantis’ tenure ended with a stroke of the governor’s pen.

House Bill 1557, which critics called the “don’t say gay” bill, was aimed at asserting more parental control over schools. Among other things, the bill banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and restricted such instruction in older grades.

Critics saw the bill as unfairly targeting the gay and transgender communities. Young kids weren’t being instructed on those topics, they argued, so the measure was unnecessary at best and discriminatory at worst.

DeSantis responded to weeks of outrage with a defiant message. Standing behind a lectern that read “Protect children. Support parents,” DeSantis blasted the press at a bill signing, saying coverage of the bill was full of “sloganeering and fake narratives.”

The governor wades into school board races

DeSantis has pushed for a greater politicization of school boards, arguing elections should be partisan and that members should have term limits. (He signed a bill mandating 12-year term limits in 2022.)

In 2022, the governor took his advocacy to another level, endorsing a slate of more than two dozen candidates for local school board seats. His political committee spent more than $2 million across the races.

“All we were doing — it wasn’t rocket science — we were just educating our voters about who shared our values and who didn’t,” DeSantis said of his political efforts.

His picks did quite well: 24 out of 30 won office.

This year, DeSantis is pushing for more changes. He wants a bill making school board races partisan, and limiting terms to eight years.

DeSantis goes after professor tenure

When a professor at a university achieves tenure, they become extremely difficult to remove. As a result, tenure is a coveted status among academics, and a major sweetener for universities looking to recruit. The idea is to give professors job security to ensure greater academic freedom.

At a news conference in January, DeSantis said he would like to see the state change its tenure rules to make it easier to terminate unproductive faculty. DeSantis had already signed a measure introduced at the 11th hour of the 2022 legislative session that mandated a tenure review every five years for professors. Now, he wants universities to be able to initiate a tenure review at any time.

University professors staunchly oppose the proposal.

DeSantis tries to remake higher education

DeSantis in 2023 appointed several new conservative members to the board of trustees of the small liberal arts New College of Florida in Sarasota.

The appointments, which his office called an effort to “recapture higher education” in the state, included Rufo as well as a dean at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan.

DeSantis has also picked former state Sen. Ray Rodrigues, who has repeatedly backed the governor’s priorities, to be the chancellor of the state’s university system. Ben Sasse, the new president of the University of Florida, is a former Republican U.S. senator. And most recently, DeSantis selected Richard Corcoran, the conservative politician who once led DeSantis’ Department of Education, to be New College’s next president.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.