- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made remaking school boards a top priority for reelection.
- He endorsed 29 candidates who support his agenda for the primary taking place August 23.
- DeSantis is one of the most famous Republicans in America who also campaigned for MAGA candidates.
DORAL, Florida — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is working to line up a slew of loyalists on school boards across Florida as he seeks a second term in the nation's third-largest state.
"We need help at the local level," DeSantis said at a firefighters building before 430 enthusiastic supporters during a campaign event on Sunday. "You guys with your power going out and voting is going to make a huge difference."
The governor has endorsed 29 conservative candidates ahead of Tuesday's election for school board races, which typically don't receive much attention and are technically nonpartisan.
School board members make decisions about spending, schedules, supplies, curriculum, and other matters. But in more than a dozen counties where DeSantis endorsed candidates, school boards defied the governor last fall by obligating students to wear masks.
The elections have come into greater focus for voters who were frustrated after schools across the US stayed closed during the coronavirus pandemic. DeSantis and other Republicans have taken note of the energy behind these races, and have also moved to restrict school curriculum or practices on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
"We are not going to surrender to woke," said DeSantis, whose political committee donated to the school board candidates. "We are going to prevail and Florida is the state where woke goes to die."
Lieutenant Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who also appeared at the event, told the crowd that the DeSantis administration was focused on education because it "is key to opportunity, it's the key to our future."
"I'm calling on each and every one of you to join us in this battle to take back our school boards," she said.
Criticising the Democratic Party as a "woke dumpster fire," DeSantis during his speech indicated he would double down on many of the education issues he tackled over the last four years, which are spelled out in his 10-point education agenda on his website.
They include rejecting school lockdowns and to "keep woke gender ideology out of schools." DeSantis vowed during his speech to support higher pay for teachers.
Florida has has among the lowest relative pay for teachers of any other state in the US, according to the National Education Association, even though state lawmakers and the governor increased their pay this past year and gave teachers bonuses.
On Tuesday, DeSantis proposed a plan to reduce Florida's teacher shortages through providing temporary teaching certificates to police officers, paramedics, and firefighters.
Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar panned the idea in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live as "shortcutting" and said it "doesn't really get at the root of the problem."
"We want to make sure that we have fully trained, fully credentialed teachers in our classroom with the experience and support they need to teach every child," the union leader said.
DeSantis touts anti-lockdown record
Doral, which is in Miami-Dade County, was the first stop on a tour Sunday that was also set to include Sarasota, Volusia, and Duval Counties. The event in Sarasota had a crowd of more than 1,200 people, according to the DeSantis campaign.
In November, DeSantis will face off against either Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried or Rep. Charlie Crist, a congressman from St. Petersburg who previously was the GOP governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011. Voters will decide the winner of the Democratic nomination for governor during Tuesday's primary.
DeSantis recently has been campaigning on behalf of Republicans in other states, including gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and US Senate candidate JD Vance in Ohio.
DeSantis is widely rumored to be eyeing the White House. Stumping for candidates in other states — particularly battleground states — is one way that presidential hopefuls create political allegiances and burnish their brands as leaders of their respective parties.
"It's really important to raise awareness about his policies right now before he becomes that powerful," Avani, a 28-year-old transgender woman who was protesting outside DeSantis' campaign event, told Insider in an interview. She declined to share her last name.
During his roughly 30-minute speech, DeSantis celebrated his actions as governor that included setting new education standards that reduced testing, and requiring school districts to show how they select textbooks.
DeSantis celebrated the way he defied federal health officials and teachers' unions in the fall of 2020 when he decided to reopen schools during the pandemic. Though he was met with backlash for months, many blue states eventually followed suit as they concluded school closures did more harm than good.
The governor indicated during his speech Sunday that being a parent of three young children has affected his views on schools.
"It makes me and her more sensitive to a lot of the things parents have to think through with kids nowadays," he said of himself and his wife, Casey DeSantis.
Attendees at the rally said they were enthusiastic about the governor's political future. Gianni Lehmann, 73, from the Westchester neighborhood in Miami, said "we need new blood" on school boards and that "education has to be the first priority."
Max Morgan, 50, a DeSantis supporter from Broward, said, "any parent is conservative when it comes to their children" even if they themselves are politically liberal.
"We want the best for our children, we want the safest environment, the best education," he said.
'Save our children'
During his speech DeSantis also touted policies that have sparked backlash and lawsuits, including the Parental Rights in Education Act.
Dubbed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay Bill," the new law bans discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, particularly in kindergarten through third grade.
"Children are being exposed to things that are robbing them of their innocence," said Jackie Rosario, one of the school board candidates for Indian River County. "The content is often not age appropriate or grade-level appropriate. We need a new slogan: Save our children."
But critics say the bill may extend to higher grades because it contains ambiguous language banning such instruction "in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate." They worry about chilling the speech of LGBTQ teachers and about students being outed to families who don't accept them.
Another curriculum area DeSantis bashed at his campaign rally was "critical race theory," which he defined as teaching "kids to hate our country and hate each other because of race." Republicans have used the term as a shorthand for race-based discussions and trainings that they say are tied to Marxism.
Formally, critical race theory examines racism in US institutions stemming from slavery and the Jim Crow era. Democrats have argued it's mostly taught in law schools and accuse politicians who favor bans of trying to whitewash history.
The DeSantis event drew roughly 30 protestors across the street who chanted "We say gay!" as the governor's supporters exited the event.
The protesters held signs condemning a new state law that makes it illegal to have an abortion after 15 weeks into a pregnancy, a state effort to consider blocking transgender minors from accessing puberty blockers, and DeSantis' education policies.
"Teachers are feeling uncomfortable that they can't speak their minds, that they can't be themselves" Avani said.