DeSantis celebrates as most of his school board candidates win their Florida races

Education has become a key part of the Republican governor's messaging.

August 24, 2022, 7:25 PM

Most of the Florida school board candidates backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis won their elections on Tuesday -- an indication that the ascendant Republican's conservative stance on education is moving the needle with some parents across the state.

DeSantis at his election night rally on Tuesday night declared victories for his endorsees, of which 25 out of 30 won or are likely to win their races.

He again lauded that success on Wednesday at a rally in Seminole County, casting the races in the culture-war language that has become his signature.

"We were able to take school boards that had leftist majorities ... people that wanted to mask your kids, people that wanted to indoctrinate your kids. We were able to replace them all across the state," DeSantis argued at another stop on his "Keep America Free" tour. "We were able to replace union-backed candidates with conservatives."

In the days leading up to Florida's primaries, DeSantis campaigned across the state on his "Education Agenda Tour." He joined with school board candidates who share his "anti-woke" agenda, giving them one final push before their races.

"We didn't have a primary for me ... we didn't have Senate [race], attorney general [race], none of that," he said. "So what was the motivation?" he added, referencing the turnout of Republican voters. "One of the reasons is we worked hard to elect pro-student, pro-parent candidates all across the state of Florida."

With DeSantis at the helm, Florida Republicans have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the down-ballot, typically apolitical races. The rare move to endorse and even share campaign funds with school board candidates comes as DeSantis has made a legislative push to preserve what he calls parents' rights in schools, over criticism that he is trying to restrict some topics from the classroom.

In recent months, Florida's GOP-controlled legislature has passed bills barring race-based conversations in schools and for some grades, the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The issue of education and parents' oversight of the classroom has become a key tenant of the GOP's campaign message in recent years, in particular after the onset of COVID-19 and the resulting remote schooling and school closures. Voters in some places have responded favorably, such as with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's 2021 victory in Virginia.

Youngkin ran in large part on the issue of parental choice in COVID-related school restrictions.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Republican Party of Florida Night Watch Party during the primary election, in Hialeah, Florida, Aug. 23, 2022.
Marco Bello/Reuters

In recent months in Florida, DeSantis has signed legislation like the Parental Rights in Education Bill, denounced by its opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which bans the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools for children from kindergarten to third grade or in other classroom settings where it is deemed inappropriate.

DeSantis also signed the so-called Stop WOKE Act to block critical race theory in schools. (The theory is typically taught only in high-level academic settings, not grade school.) Last week, a federal judge declared portions of that bill unconstitutional.

The governor's school board victories in Florida include two races in Miami-Dade County, one of the stops on DeSantis' "Education Agenda Tour." Monica Colucci, who rallied with him on Sunday, defeated a 24-year incumbent on her platform of keeping "socialist curriculums" away from schools.

In Sarasota, another of Florida's largest counties, three DeSantis endorsed candidates won their races, flipping the school board to a four-to-one conservative majority.

The Florida Department of Education -- whose commissioner, Manny Diaz, also spoke on DeSantis' tour -- announced last week it would give U.S. military veterans and their spouses five-year temporary teaching certificates as they complete bachelor's degrees. The policy has been opposed by teachers' unions across Florida, who say hiring unqualified instructors would be harmful to students.

Democrats, who also decided to endorse 18 school board candidates, saw just five victories on Tuesday night. They unseated Fred Lowry, who as a Volusia County councilman faced calls to resign after he espoused a far-right conspiracy theory.

Diyonne McGraw, who was removed from her seat last year by DeSantis and replaced with Mildred Russell after it was discovered she lives around 300 feet outside of the district, ran again and beat out Russell.

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