HomePoliticsHow Ron DeSantis used Florida schools to become a culture warrior

How Ron DeSantis used Florida schools to become a culture warrior

Ron DeSantis’ road to national fame began in the classrooms of Florida, where he harnessed the culture war passions and used them in education policy.

In the name of “parental rights,” the Republican governor has banned education about sexual orientation and gender identity and limited what Florida schools can teach about racism and American history. He has exercised control over the pronouns and toilets students use. Tenured professors are now subject to regular assessments, as part of sweeping reforms to check ‘left-wing ideology’ and ‘indoctrination’ in higher education.

His policies have drawn much criticism from civil rights leaders and educators, among others, but have also borne fruit politically. As DeSantis prepares for the Republican Party’s first presidential debate Wednesday night, he is one of the most popular Republican politicians in the country and one of the leading contenders for the party’s nomination.

Policy and education experts say DeSantis’ education agenda has influenced what it means to be a viable Republican candidate. It will also likely determine part of Wednesday’s debate.

“A good way to win a Republican primary these days is to be pro-voucher, anti-woke, anti-DEI, and anti-LGBTQ,” said Doug Harris, a professor of education policy and economics at Tulane University.


DeSantis wasn’t always a culture warrior. Experts who follow DeSantis’ policies say that after he was elected to his first term in 2018, there were no signs by a narrow margin that education policy or controversy would become his hallmarks.

Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he tapped into dissatisfaction with school closures and masks being mandated. After initially closing schools, as all governors did in March 2020, DeSantis issued an executive order in July directing schools to reopen for in-person instruction, ignoring the objections of teachers and unions. He threatened to withhold salaries from overseers who defied a ban on mask mandates.

“The pandemic was clearly a turning point for DeSantis,” said Carol Weissert, professor emeritus of political science at Florida State University. “He opposed schools and aligned himself with parents.”

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It was the beginning of many policies that made DeSantis a leader in the conservative push for “parental rights.” The theme was also highlighted by Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in his successful 2021 campaign.

“Our school system should be focused on educating children, not indoctrinating children. And that means we’ve gone on the offensive against toxic ideologies,” DeSantis said shortly after announcing his presidential bid in May. “I can tell you this, I have only just started fighting.”


A major theme during DeSantis’ tenure was the pledge to ban critical race theories from classrooms, following former President Donald Trump’s banning federal agencies from offering diversity training on racial and gender bias in 2020.

Trump’s ban was repealed by President Joe Biden, but the critical race theory became a lightning rod for conservatives. The theory is rarely taught in elementary schools, but the term has become a catchall term for systemic racism. Conservatives say it’s being used to trick white people into believing they’re inherently racist.

Critical race theory has found its way into bills from 44 states, including 18 that have passed laws, said Robert Kim, executive director of the Education Law Center. Florida led the way.

“These laws are causing chaos and confusion in public schools, and that may be part of the point,” Kim said. He said the culture war policy coincided with the school voucher policy as part of what he calls a “multiple attack on public education”. DeSantis’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The DeSantis administration has been steadily enforcing its law. The state education department initially blocked more than 40% of math textbooks submitted to the state for review by publishers last year because they violated the ban on critical race theory. The department later showed examples that state critics had flagged with references to “forbidden topics” such as racial prejudice or social-emotional learning.

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Much of DeSantis’ education policy seems to focus on what resonates with conservative voters, said Jon Valent, director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. “They are not based at all on any school reform theory,” he said. He noted the influence of Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and architect of the right-wing outcry against critical race theory, who has become a key ally of DeSantis.

“He will keep coming back to these ideas as long as they continue to help him create an identity politically that he believes will benefit him in a presidential campaign,” Valent said.


One of DeSantis’ most controversial policies is the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents. It banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in Florida classrooms “in a manner that is inappropriate for age or development.” But its impact, combined with other legislation, has had an impact on the books schools offer to students.

New laws in Florida have prompted schools to remove books from shelves, according to the free speech organization PEN America. Florida is second only to Texas as the state with the highest number of book removals, according to an April report from PEN, which tracked textbook bans from July to December 2022.

Teachers and librarians across the state say laws on the discussion of race, gender and sexual orientation are so open to interpretation that they feel compelled to grab books that deal with these topics.

DeSantis has dismissed coverage of book bans as a “hoax,” and parents who have advocated for book removals say literature containing sexually explicit passages should not be freely available to teens.

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DeSantis has also taken several steps to regulate black history education — which other conservative leaders have emulated.

In January, he rejected a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, saying it was not “historically accurate” and violated the Stop Woke Act — a 2022 Florida law that restricts how gender and race are discussed in classrooms and the workplace.

Following Florida’s lead, Arkansas officials objected to the course earlier this week, but several school districts have backed down, saying they still plan to offer the AP course. North Dakota, Mississippi and Virginia said earlier this year they plan to review the course material before deciding whether it can be taught in their schools.

In July, guidelines announced by the Florida Board of Education for teaching African-American history led to criticism from educators and historians. According to the standards, high school students should be taught that “slaves developed skills that could, in some cases, be applied to their personal advantage,” a rewriting of history that was widely criticized.

Prior to the return to classes, Florida also became the first state to approve the use of videos in its classrooms produced by the Prager University Foundation, a media company named after conservative radio host Dennis Prager. The company makes videos to “promote American values,” according to the website.

One video shows abolitionist Frederick Douglass saying that while slavery was wrong and evil, it was a compromise the Founding Fathers had to make in order to “achieve something great.”

The Republican primary will reveal a lot about the direction of the conservative education agenda, Valent said.

“A lot of that will be about whether or not DeSantis’ quote-unquote anti-woke agenda resonates in other states,” he said. “I think we’re either going to see a lot of copycat, or we’re going to see people pull back from that.”

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