Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans are upending local school board elections

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Education advocates in the state say the move sets a 'dangerous' precedent.

Florida's school board elections, which have historically been nonpartisan, have this year been turned into a battleground for conservatives' culture wars against LGBTQ rights, racial equity, and COVID-19 safety precautions, among other issues.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to several school districts before last week's primary school board elections to stump for his chosen candidates. DeSantis endorsed 30 candidates, 20 of whom won their races. Several other candidates will head to runoff elections in November.

Education advocates in Florida say that DeSantis has set a "dangerous" precedent by inserting himself — the most powerful partisan elected official in the state — into local nonpartisan elections.

Florida School Boards Association CEO Andrea Messina told the Florida Phoenix that she had never seen such a level of involvement by the executive office.

"To my knowledge," Messina said, "we've not seen a governor travel the state and hold rallies for local races other than for the state legislature."

Such a level of investment from a state governor in nonpartisan school board races is unprecedented. But with the politicization of school policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis has garnered enormous support from conservative groups including Moms for Liberty.

Robin Taub Williams, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Manasota, told the Phoenix that DeSantis' endorsements set a "dangerous" precedent.

"This is not a normal school board race," Williams said. "Normal school board races aren't about a national Republican political culture war agenda."

Since 2020, a number of deeply polarizing issues have roiled school boards across the country, with mask mandates and school closures among the most controversial.

DeSantis issued an executive order in July 2021 prohibiting Florida schools from instituting mask mandates. School boards that refused to comply risked losing state funding.

In August 2021, as children prepared to go back to school, Florida was in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 cases — some 21,000 a day. Two teachers and an educational assistant in Broward County had died of COVID-19 complications, according to the New York Times. The Broward County School Board, fearing for the well-being of staff and students, felt its only option was to defy the governor's ban on mask mandates.

Broward County was not alone. Last year, 12 separate school boards defied the governor's rule against mask mandates, choosing instead to prioritize the health and well-being of their community.

Hillsborough County, with more than 206,000 students in the Tampa area, voted 5-2 to adopt a 30-day mask mandate. Miami-Dade, Florida's largest school district with 334,000 students, voted for the same, 7-1.

In the weeks prior to the Miami-Dade vote, a 13-year-old student and four district employees died from COVID, the Associated Press reported.

Ultimately, DeSantis backed down from his threat to defund the schools, but only after his Department of Education leveled punishments on several school board members who had voted to follow the Centers for Disease Control's public health guidelines.

Conservative activist groups celebrated the school board victories last week. That includes the 1776 Project PAC, a right-wing response to the educational 1619 Project, which "illuminates the legacy of slavery in the contemporary United States" and "highlights the contributions of Black Americans to every aspect of American society."

The 1776 Project PAC, by contrast, seeks a McCarthy-esque rooting out of any school curriculum that addresses racism. The group's website invites readers to "report" schools that promote materials they deem to be spreading so-called "Critical Race Theory".

The conservative group endorsed nearly 50 candidates for Florida school boards, many of whom won their races last week.

"Miami-Dade is now the LARGEST county in America with a conservative school board majority," the 1776 Project PAC tweeted on Aug. 23.

Among DeSantis' winning endorsees last week was Roberto Alonso, a real estate agent and right-wing activist in Miami-Dade's District 4. Alonso has referred to efforts to extend Title IX protections to LGBTQ students as "woke insanity."

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, DeSantis' second-in-command, gave $50,000 to Alonso's political action committee. Nuñez also supported her former special assistant, Monica Colucci, in her own school board campaign to represent Miami-Dade's District Eight. Nuñez's PAC is called Jobs and Prosperity for Florida.

Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for governor, endorsed his own slate of seven school board candidates ahead of the election.

"Governor DeSantis is politicizing our classrooms, taking away parental rights and limiting Florida students' freedom to learn," Crist said in a statement.

In a gesture that suggests the importance of education in the governor's race, Crist announced his pick for lieutenant governor over the weekend. He tapped Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade and a vocal critic of DeSantis' agenda.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.