Ron DeSantis Is Struggling. What Does That Say About His Education Platform?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ strategy to win over voters in the 2024 presidential election through vows that he will root out “woke ideology” in schools has so far failed to materialize into any sort of real competition for former President Donald Trump.

In a late July New York Times and Siena College poll, 17 percent of voters said they’d be most likely to vote for DeSantis if the Republican presidential primary election were held then while a majority, 54 percent, said they would vote for Trump. Other recent polls from Fox News, the Economist and YouGov, and the Associated Press show Trump holding similar leads.

It’s a less than optimal outlook for DeSantis as the Republican primary contenders head into their first official debate on Wednesday, Aug. 22.

In July, Politico reported that DeSantis fired more than a third of his campaign staff, including two senior advisers, in an effort to get his presidential bid back on track. He replaced his campaign manager earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the Florida governor has been embroiled in fights with the College Board over Advanced Placement Psychology and African American Studies courses and controversies after the Florida Department of Education released revised African American history standards that teach that “some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted.”

DeSantis has tried to position himself as a champion of the conservative parents’ rights movement, aligning with influential groups like Moms for Liberty, a political group that originated in Florida and capitalized on parent outrage following the COVID-19 pandemic, but it appears it hasn’t been enough to make him a strong contender against Trump.

That might be because many of DeSantis’ policy positions are focused on what he’s against—LGBTQ+ curriculum, inclusive bathroom and sports policies for transgender and nonbinary youth, and history classes that teach about white supremacy’s role in developing systemic racism—rather than what he stands for, said Todd Belt, a political science professor at George Washington University.

“Elections are about the future. It’s not enough just to be against something,” Belt said. “You have to be able to articulate a vision for what the future is.”

Education doesn’t win national elections

While education has always held a place in presidential elections, it’s never been a deciding factor. That’s largely because education is highly localized. Decisions about curriculum, classroom standards, and school policy are mostly made at the school board and state levels while the federal government’s role is limited; it provides only 7.6 percent of public school funding, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

As president, DeSantis wouldn’t be able to do as much with education as he’s done in Florida. He could try to pass incentives for states to expand school choice or pass policies that give parents more control over curriculum decisions—modeled after initiatives he’s championed as Florida’s governor—but he would be largely limited in his power to influence education from the Oval Office.

“Education is a problematic area for presidents to make any promises about because there is such little direct influence,” Belt said. “And when you get involved, it can be a bit of a minefield.”

That being said, presidents have major influence over party policy.

If DeSantis succeeds in his presidential bid, his victory could push other conservative politicians to pursue the same parents’ rights and curriculum policies that DeSantis has passed in Florida, said Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“I don’t know how much of what we’re seeing so far is a reflection of what people think about his education agenda, but I do think it’s going to be interpreted that way,” Valant said. “If DeSantis performs well, I think there will be a lot of Republicans around the country who think to themselves, ‘well, I can win using this kind of model.’”

The presidential candidate has hinged much of his platform on parents’ rights rhetoric, criticizing schools for teaching “woke ideology.” He’s established a coalition called Mamas for DeSantis, which aims to “put an end to the woke mob’s hostile takeover of the lives of parents, children, and families across the nation.”

DeSantis and other Republicans saw education as a path to win elections after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin won his campaign in 2021 on a parents’ rights platform in a state that hadn’t elected a Republican governor in more than a decade.

At the time, it seemed as if that strategy would mobilize conservative parents upset following extended COVID-19 school closures and school diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. That has failed to materialize, however, in consistent wins for conservative politicians. In the 2022 midterm elections, the predicted “red wave” of conservative wins didn’t become a reality and politicians who centered their campaigns on elevating parents’ rights and combatting critical race theory and gender ideology in schools failed to secure major wins.

Voters don’t appear to have warmed up to the idea, either, not even likely Republican presidential primary voters. In the New York Times/Siena College poll from late July, 25 percent of Republican voters likely to cast ballots in the primaries said they’d support “a candidate who focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media, and culture.” Many more Republicans—64 percent—said they’d vote for a candidate “who focuses on restoring law and order in our streets and at the border.”

There’s also more to it than policy preferences.

“The magnetism of Trump for the GOP base overwhelms traditional policy issues that might otherwise attract votes,” David Bloomfield, an education law professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in an email. “’Anti-woke’ [education] policies aren’t the catnip DeSantis believed.”

DeSantis’ next steps

While his aggressive stance on education might play a part in his lackluster polling, DeSantis’ biggest problem appears to be that voters have not lost their love for Trump, even as the former president faces four criminal indictments.

In the New York Times poll, 69 percent of the likely Republican voters said they’d describe Trump as a “strong leader” while 22 percent said the same of DeSantis, 54 percent described Trump as “fun” while only 16 percent said the same of DeSantis, and 58 percent described Trump as “able to beat Joe Biden” while only a third said the same of DeSantis.

If campaign strategy memos published to the website of a super PAC backing DeSantis are any indication, the Florida governor will likely use the Republican presidential primary debate Wednesday night to try and combat some of those perceptions of him. But unless he’s able to provide a strong vision for the future, he won’t have much luck, Belt said.

“He really needs to use this upcoming debate and the next coming weeks to give people some idea of what he’s for and not just against,” Belt said.

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