Kathryn Joyce: Republicans Don’t Want to Reform Public Education. They Want to End It.
In the New Republic, Kathryn Joyce looks at how Ron DeSantis is at the forefront of a shift in GOP politics regarding education. DeSantis had started out in office following in the footsteps of Jeb Bush, but then he moved in a new direction.
But while in some regards DeSantis followed Bush’s footsteps, he’s also distinguished himself by importing national, Trumpian fights into Florida’s education system. In March, he unveiled a $106 million civics education initiative—developed, uncoincidentally, under the advisement of Hillsdale College, which directs a line of charter schools, including one run by the education commissioner’s wife—that emphasizes “the influence of the Ten Commandments,” calls protesting “irresponsible citizenship,” and bans “Marxist” critical race theory. In June, the state Board of Education prohibited any instruction that defines American history “as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” The same month, DeSantis signed a bill requiring Florida’s public universities to survey faculty and staff about their political beliefs, in the claimed interest of ensuring that students aren’t “indoctrinated” on campus. The bill was accompanied by vague threats from DeSantis to defund schools that demonstrate insufficient “intellectual diversity.”
DeSantis has calculated, rightly, that injecting partisan politics into local decisions about education could serve right-wing priorities. This summer, he vowed to “get the Florida political apparatus involved” in school board elections—nonpartisan by law since 1998—“so we can make sure there’s not a single school board Republican who ever indulges in Critical Race Theory.” Soon after, two Republican state legislators pre-filed a bill calling for a 2022 ballot initiative that would amend Florida’s Constitution in order to require school board candidates to run under party affiliations. One of the authors, state Representative Spencer Roach, cast the bill as a transparency measure. “Parents are outraged by the radicalism of the entrenched educational establishment,” Roach warned, “and incumbent school board members across the country will see a reckoning of historic proportions at the ballot box in 2022.”
All of this may be juicy politics, but public education advocates see a deeper threat. The fact that DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates binds only public—not private or charter—schools, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, suggests that “this is not just about the issue at hand but is more broad-based.” In other words, the ban may not be aimed at doing away with masks so much as punishing public schools. “It’s the Betsy DeVos playbook,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “complete destabilization of public education so that parents will choose private schools.”
And the destabilization is hard to ignore. Behind the “rabbit holes the governor wants everyone to chase down,” Spar said, is the reality that Florida’s public schools opened this August with some 9,000 vacancies among teachers and support staff, as veteran educators leave in frustration and too few replacements apply. In the privatized alternatives Republicans have pushed, critics say that the rapid expansion of vouchers—usage of which in Florida has tripled over the last decade—has led to a proliferation of low-quality “voucher schools”: cheap enough that vouchers mostly cover tuition but so poorly regulated that, as a 2017 Orlando Sentinel investigation found, some schools hold classes in aging strip malls, falsify safety and health records, and employ teachers without college degrees. Florida has also long exempted private schools from the high-stakes, year-end testing that’s used as a cudgel against their public counterparts.
The state has been moving forward on what seem like completely contradictory tracks, said education journalist Jennifer Berkshire, co-author of the recent book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. “On one hand, they keep imposing new regulations on their public system. But on the other hand, they’re moving more and more kids into a completely unregulated school choice system where there’s no accountability at all.” What it amounts to, she explained, is “a completely hands-off attitude” toward children’s education—parents are considered the regulators of privatized options, and there is a clear goal “to move as many kids out of the public system as possible.”