Could DeSantis beat Trump in 2024 presidential race with education moves?

There are signs Donald Trump is feeling politically vulnerable when it comes to schools.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it part of his mission to reshape the state’s culture from the ground up.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it part of his mission to reshape the state’s culture from the ground up. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Feb. 8|Updated Feb. 23

When Ron DeSantis took the inauguration stage for the first time in 2019, he didn’t sound like a national conservative leader on education policy.

Far from scorching pronouncements about critical race theory or transgender athletes, DeSantis delivered standard-issue Republican talking points about vocational training, expansion of school vouchers and the importance of civics education.

By his second inauguration in January, DeSantis’ tone had changed. Children were to be defended from “those who seek to rob them of their innocence,” he said. Colleges and universities must be safeguarded from “the imposition of trendy ideology.”

Florida’s governor has made it part of his mission to reshape the state’s culture from the ground up. That means rethinking the state’s approach to education, those close to him say.

He’s done so at a time when conservatives all over the country have made schools central to national debates over history, gender, race and the role of government.

In such a charged political environment, DeSantis’ school policies could play a significant role in distinguishing the governor from his potential competitors in a 2024 Republican primary field, should he choose to run.

“He’s set himself up as the don among Republican governors when it comes to education,” said Max Eden, an education fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Proponents of DeSantis’ approach say the pandemic shed light on an education system that favors progressive viewpoints and sidelines parents if they’re not paying close attention.

Skeptics of the conservative push say educators are fleeing from what they see as a series of divisive, manufactured controversies about “woke” ideology creeping into schools.

According to a tally from the Florida Education Association, DeSantis now presides over a significant, and deepening, teacher shortage: An August tally by that group found more than 6,000 advertised teacher vacancies on school district websites.

But many of his accomplishments are sure to be celebrated by 2024 Republican presidential primary voters. In the past month alone, DeSantis has:

  • Rejected an AP African American studies course offered by the College Board, arguing its content was an attempt at “indoctrination.” (The College Board subsequently tweaked the course, though denied doing so for political reasons.)
  • Proposed $200 million in new teacher raises — along with a series of proposals aimed at curbing the influence of teacher’s unions.
  • Called for a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state universities.
  • Reshaped the administration of the New College of Florida, a small public liberal arts college in Sarasota. The university’s new interim president will be Richard Corcoran, a seasoned Republican political operative.

“We want education, not indoctrination,” DeSantis said of his move to reject the AP course.

Amid this flurry of activity, Trump released his own education plan, a potential sign he sees himself as vulnerable on the education front. (A Trump campaign spokesperson did not return emailed requests for comment.)

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Some of the education policy proposals announced by Trump included initiatives similar to those already implemented by DeSantis. Trump promised to cut federal funding to any school “pushing critical race theory.” DeSantis’ Department of Education banned the teaching of critical race theory in 2021.

Trump said he would “adopt a parental bill of rights that includes complete curriculum transparency and school choice.” DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act — which some critics called the “don’t say gay” bill — in 2022.

Other initiatives of Trump’s, such as a proposal to make school principal an elected office, are difficult to enact from the White House. Public school systems are overwhelmingly funded by state and local governments, so a governor has far more power over education policy than a president.

Trump does hold some advantages over DeSantis when it comes to education. As president, he appointed three Supreme Court justices, ushering in an era of conservative dominance that is likely to spell the end of affirmative action in college admissions. That’s been a policy priority of conservatives for decades.

DeSantis has remained mum on whether he will seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. A political spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

A November survey of nearly 1,600 registered voters showed that immigration and inflation are the top issues for Republicans — not education.

Related: The pandemic is central to Ron DeSantis’ brand. Will voters still care in 2024?

But DeSantis has crept closer to Trump in some surveys in recent weeks, with one poll showing the Florida governor ahead of Trump by double digits among likely Republican primary voters in the all-important state of New Hampshire.

Trump has made DeSantis — whom the former president endorsed for governor in 2018 — a more frequent target. He criticized DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, telling reporters in January that the governor’s team was trying to “rewrite history” on the pandemic.

When asked about Trump’s comments at a news conference later that month, DeSantis pointed to his landslide reelection victory as evidence that the public approved of his performance.

Although DeSantis did close Florida schools in the spring of 2020, conservatives and liberals alike have commended his push to reopen campuses for in-person instruction starting in the fall of 2020 — well before many other states.

And conservatives say schools were a big part of DeSantis’ reelection appeal. During the pandemic, many parents feared they’d lost control of their children’s education. DeSantis fought mask mandates. He pushed for teacher raises while also bashing teachers’ unions, who sued him over his decision to reopen. (They argued at the time that the state did not have a plan to do so safely.)

The governor also championed curriculum restrictions that counteracted the social reckoning sought by some in the wake of high-profile killings by police in the summer of 2020. That won him fans on the right, too.

“People do have values, and they want public schools to transmit those values,” said Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Critics of the governor say his approach to education has been divisive and confusing. Some high-profile 2022 bills have come with little guidance from the state, they say. That’s caused districts to interpret the law in different ways.

For example, in Hillsborough County, school board members spent an hour and a half of a January meeting trying to figure out how to respond to a letter from state officials warning that their governing document’s mention of “institutional racism” was in violation of state policy.

The officials did not make clear which policy Hillsborough was violating, but one strong possibility is 2022′s Individual Freedom Act, also known as Florida’s Stop Woke Act. That bill bans schools from teaching that an individual is inherently racist by virtue of their race or national origin.

And last summer, Orange County’s school district told some teachers they could not display LGBTQ Pride flags in their classrooms, or they would risk running afoul of the new Parental Rights in Education law. The district later said it had been mistaken.

“That’s the danger of politics driving education decisions, because it’s not parents driving education decisions right now,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “It is politics and politicians.”