On Feb. 15, 2019, Ron DeSantis had been Florida’s governor for just over a month when he offered a new definition of public education. Visiting a religious school in Orlando to push a new program that would allow the use of public funding for private and religious education, he said: “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.” In this oxymoronic framing, “public education” includes schools over which the public has no control.
A few months later, he vetoed his first bill, one that would have barred local governments from banning single-use plastic straws, and he extolled the virtues of local control. He liked to let people do what they wanted unless it infringed on a state law or a constitutional right, he said. But it wasn’t long before he began to bigfoot local school boards and superintendents — usurping local residents’ judgments of who should represent them — and launch a culture war in schools around race and LGBTQ issues, imposing his sensibilities on local communities.
DeSantis displayed his oxymoronic school spiel again on Tuesday, in his second inaugural speech after a landslide reelection that heightened speculation that he would seek the U.S. presidency in 2024. The governor espoused bromides about what he views as his big first-time accomplishments. The overall message was that he has turned Florida into the “freedom” state — the DeSantis version of freedom.
“Education freedom” is a favorite catchphrase of DeSantis, former education secretary Betsy DeVos and their compatriots who view the U.S. public education system as a monopoly. They support a privatized system — including religious schools — that is publicly funded even if the public has no control over the private schools. DeVos has for years talked about “education freedom,” which in this vision would not include families who want a public school in their neighborhood over which the public has some control.
Here’s part of what he said in his second inaugural address:
Freedom lives here, in our great Sunshine State of Florida!It lives in the courage of those who patrol the streets and keep our communities safe, it lives in the industry of those who work long hours to earn a living and raise their families, it lives in the dedication of those who teach our children, it lives in the determination of those who grow our food, it lives in the wisdom of our senior citizens, it lives in the dreams of the historic number of families who have moved from thousands of miles away because they saw Florida as the land of liberty and the land of sanity....Florida is #1 in education freedom.And we rank #1 in parental involvement in education....
And there was this:
We must ensure school systems are responsive to parents and to students, not partisan interest groups, and we must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology …
Well, these last few years have witnessed a great test of governing philosophies as many jurisdictions pursued a much different path than we have pursued here in the state of Florida.The policies pursued by these states have sparked a mass exodus of productive Americans from these jurisdictions – with Florida serving as the most desired destination, a promised land of sanity.Many of these cities and states have embraced faddish ideology at the expense of enduring principles.They have harmed public safety by coddling criminals and attacking law enforcement.They have imposed unreasonable burdens on taxpayers to finance unfathomable levels of public spending.They have harmed education by subordinating the interests of students and parents to partisan interest groups.
Here’s what DeSantis, who has been waging the most aggressive war against public education of any governor — didn’t say: Teachers are free to teach — as long as it is what he likes. Parents are allowed to exercise power in schools — as long as they do what he wants. Rather than expanding freedom in classrooms, he led the states in restricting what teachers can say in the classroom about subjects including race, racism, gender and sex education.
On March 28, he signed what critics dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill, which limits teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity. While numerous similar bills have been considered in legislatures in years past, it was DeSantis who pushed through the first one to become law.
Then, on April 15, his administration announced that it had rejected publisher-submitted math textbooks for including passages his administration doesn’t like, including those it says are about critical race theory and social-emotional learning (SEL). Critical race theory is an academic framework for looking at systemic racism in the United States, something DeSantis and like-minded supporters refuse to admit has existed throughout the life of the country.
Though states followed DeSantis’s lead in banning it from being taught in schools, virtually no K-12 teachers used the term when discussing racism or requiring students to read the work of scholars who use that framework. Social-emotional learning programs — which are aimed at helping students deal with social and emotional issues that can affect their academic performance — were targeted too, with conservatives alleging falsely that they promote critical race theory.
On April 22, he signed into law the “Stop Woke Act,” saying earlier that he wanted it to be the nation’s strongest legislation against critical race theory. Under the law, teachers and schools discriminate against public school students who feel they were exposed to anything that compelled them to believe “he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” When announcing the effort in December, DeSantis said, “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.” It’s okay, though, for Florida tax dollars to go to religious schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and staff.
A Florida judge issued an order in November blocking the law from being enforced in public colleges and universities. U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker, who called the law “positively dystopian,” had earlier blocked a different portion of the law restricting race-based discussion in business. K-12 schools are still subject to it.
DeSantis has been all for “parent involvement” in schools — as long as the parents support his positions. Parents who wanted mask mandates in their schools were out of luck, as were those who wanted their children to learn an honest history of the United States. And if you were a member of a school board DeSantis didn’t like, or a superintendent in a school district doing something he didn’t like, there wasn’t much freedom for you.
For example, school districts that wanted to remain remote during part of the coronavirus pandemic were targeted by DeSantis, and he banned mask mandates, refusing to allow districts to decide for themselves whether to mandate masks. Superintendents and school boards that opposed him were sanctioned, with hundreds of thousands of state dollars withheld to districts, which the Biden administration replaced in federal grants. In Alachua County, Carlee Simon was superintendent of schools who defied DeSantis but was voted out last year by a majority of the board that included a key vote from a DeSantis-appointed board member. Last year, he also did something highly unusual for a governor: endorse school board candidates in nonpartisan races, helping culture warriors win seats.
One thing you can say about DeSantis is that he made Florida free for supporters of QAnon to serve in state government. QAnon is a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers, who say a cabal of powerful pedophiles, including prominent Democrats, run the government.
Last year, his administration appointed Esther Byrd, an office manager at her husband’s law firm, to the state Board of Education after she had expressed sympathy with QAnon beliefs on social media and offered a defense of those “peacefully protesting” the confirmation of the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021, when the U.S. Capitol was overrun by a pro-Trump mob. She has alluded to “coming civil wars.” According to the Florida Times-Union, she and her husband, state Rep. Cord Byrd (R), flew a QAnon flag on their boat.
Here is his entire speech as published on the Florida government’s website:
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Today, Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered his second inaugural address from the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol in Tallahassee. In his address to Floridians, DeSantis highlighted the progress that Florida has made to improve the lives of its residents as a result of his administration priorities, including guaranteeing access to high-quality education, creating a robust economy that continues to grow faster than the nation’s, providing access to resources for those recovering from hurricanes, and investing record funding into the Everglades and Florida’s critical water resources. In concluding his speech, DeSantis reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring our state remains the Free State of Florida and set priorities for his second term in office. You can find a full transcript of his second inaugural address below:Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Cabinet, and fellow citizens:From the Space Coast to the Suncoast, from St. Johns to St. Lucie, from the streets of Hialeah to the speedways of Daytona, from the Okeechobee all the way up to Micanopy.Freedom lives here, in our great Sunshine State of Florida!It lives in the courage of those who patrol the streets and keep our communities safe, it lives in the industry of those who work long hours to earn a living and raise their families, it lives in the dedication of those who teach our children, it lives in the determination of those who grow our food, it lives in the wisdom of our senior citizens, it lives in the dreams of the historic number of families who have moved from thousands of miles away because they saw Florida as the land of liberty and the land of sanity.Over the past few years, as so many states in our country grinded their citizens down, we in Florida lifted our people up.When other states consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin, Florida stood strongly as freedom’s linchpin.When the world lost its mind – when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue – Florida was a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world.In captaining the ship of state, we choose to navigate the boisterous sea of liberty rather than cower in the calm docks of despotism.We face attacks, we take hits, but we weather the storms, we stand our ground, and we do what is right.As the Book of Psalms reminds us, “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.”We have refused to use polls and to put our finger in the wind – leaders do not follow, they lead.We have articulated a vision for a free and prosperous state.We have, through persistence and hard work, executed on that vision.We have produced favorable results.And now we are here today because the people of Florida have validated our efforts in record fashion.Florida shows that results matter. We lead not by mere words, but by deeds.Four years ago, we promised to pursue a bold agenda. We did just that and we have produced results:We said we would ensure that Florida taxed lightly, regulated reasonably, and spent conservatively – and we delivered.We promised we would enact big education reforms – and we delivered.We said we would end judicial activism by appointing jurists who understand the proper role of a judge is to apply the law as written, not legislate from the bench – and we delivered.We promised to usher in a new era of stewardship for Florida’s natural resources by promoting water quality and Everglades restoration efforts – and we delivered.We said we would stand for law and order and support the men and women of law enforcement – and we delivered.We promised to remedy deficiencies in Florida’s election administration and to hold wayward officials accountable – and we delivered.We said we would support the areas in Northwest Florida stricken by Hurricane Michael – and we delivered.And when Hurricane Ian came last year, the state coordinated a massive mobilization of response personnel, facilitated the fastest power restoration on record, and even quickly rebuilt key bridges that had been wiped out by the storm. We have stood by the people of Southwest Florida and we will continue to do so in the weeks, months and years ahead.Because of these efforts and others, Florida is leading the nation:We are #1 in these United States in net in-migrationFlorida is the #1 fastest growing stateWe are #1 in new business formationsFlorida is #1 in tourismWe are #1 in economic freedomFlorida is #1 in education freedomAnd we rank #1 in parental involvement in educationFlorida also ranks #1 in public higher educationThis is a record we can all be proud of.And we are far from done:Florida has accumulated a record budget surplus, and we need to enact a record amount of tax relief, particularly for Florida families who are grappling with inflation.We must ensure school systems are responsive to parents and to students, not partisan interest groups, and we must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology.Florida must always be a great place to raise a family – we will enact more family-friendly policies to make it easier to raise children and we will defend our children against those who seek to rob them of their innocence.We will always remain a law-and-order state, we will always support law enforcement, and we will always reject soft-on-crime policies that put our communities at risk.Florida is now in a golden era for conservation of our treasured natural resources. Our momentum is strong and we will finish what we started – we will leave Florida to God better than we found it!This much we pledge and so much more.It is often said that our federalist constitutional system – with fifty states able to pursue their own unique policies – represents a laboratory of democracy.Well these last few years have witnessed a great test of governing philosophies as many jurisdictions pursued a much different path than we have pursued here in the state of Florida.The policies pursued by these states have sparked a mass exodus of productive Americans from these jurisdictions – with Florida serving as the most desired destination, a promised land of sanity.Many of these cities and states have embraced faddish ideology at the expense of enduring principles.They have harmed public safety by coddling criminals and attacking law enforcement.They have imposed unreasonable burdens on taxpayers to finance unfathomable levels of public spending.They have harmed education by subordinating the interests of students and parents to partisan interest groups.They have imposed medical authoritarianism in the guise of pandemic mandates and restrictions that lack a scientific basis.This bizarre, but prevalent, ideology that permeates these policy measures purports to act in the name of justice for the marginalized, but it frowns upon American institutions, it rejects merit and achievement, and it advocates identity essentialism.We reject this woke ideology.We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy!We will not allow reality, facts, and truth to become optional.We will never surrender to the woke mob.Florida is where woke goes to die!Now Florida’s success has been made more difficult by the floundering federal establishment in Washington, D.C.The federal government has gone on an inflationary spending binge that has left our nation weaker and our citizens poorer, it has enacted pandemic restrictions and mandates – based more on ideology and politics than on sound science – and this has eroded freedom and stunted commerce.It has recklessly facilitated open borders: making a mockery of the rule of law, allowing massive amounts of narcotics to infest our states, importing criminal aliens, and green lighting the flow of millions of illegal aliens into our country, burdening communities and taxpayers throughout the land.It has imposed an energy policy that has crippled our nation’s domestic production, causing energy to cost more for our citizens and eroding our nation’s energy security, and, in the process, our national security.It wields its authority through a sprawling, unaccountable and out-of-touch bureaucracy that does not act on behalf of us, but instead looms over us and imposes its will upon us.The results of this have been predictably dismal.This has caused many to be pessimistic about the country’s future. Some say that failure is inevitable.Florida is proof positive that We the People are not destined for failure.Decline is a choice. Success is attainable. And freedom is worth fighting for.Now fighting for freedom is not easy because the threats to freedom are more complex and more widespread than in the past – the threats can come from entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jet-setters in Davos, and corporations wielding public power.But fight we must.We embrace our founding creed that our rights are not granted by the courtesy of the State, but are endowed by the hand of the Almighty.We reject the idea that self-government can be subcontracted out to technocratic elites who reduce human beings to mere data points.We insist on the restoration of time-tested constitutional principles so that government of, by and for the people shall not perish from this earth.Florida has led the way in preserving what the father of our country called the “sacred fire of liberty.”It is the fire that burned in Independence Hall when 56 men pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new nation conceived in liberty.It is the fire that burned at a cemetery at Gettysburg when the nation’s first Republican president pledged to this nation a “new birth of freedom.”It is the fire that burned among the boys who stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate a continent and to preserve freedom for the world.It is the fire that infused a young preacher’s dream, relayed at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that the Declaration of Independence said what it meant and meant what it said: all men are created equal.It is the fire that led a resolute president to stand in Berlin and declare “tear down this wall,” staring down the communists and winning the Cold War.It is our responsibility here in Florida to carry this torch.We do not run from this responsibility; we welcome it.We will be on our guard.We will stand firm in the faith.We will be courageous.We will be strong!And we thank God and are proud to be citizens of the great Free State of Florida!