The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ron DeSantis shows how not to run an education system

Sophie Craig, 19, cheers alongside University of South Florida students and staff during a statewide student walkout on Feb. 23 protesting Gov. Ron DeSantis's education policies. (Ivy Ceballo/AP)
4 min

It’s no coincidence that Republican governors who have weaponized government against vulnerable populations represent states that are spectacularly failing their residents on a wide range of issues. There’s no better illustration than Ron DeSantis’s war on education.

The Florida governor seems to view schools as the battleground for his war on inclusivity and truth. Whether it is Desantis’s “don’t say gay” law or his vendetta against African American and gender studies, his obsession with telling teachers what they cannot teach far outweighs his concern for how students are performing.

And as it turns out, that performance is pretty lousy.

While Florida officials — including DeSantis — have boasted about the state’s relatively high proficiency scores among fourth-graders, they have largely ignored how quickly those scores drop as students grow older. As education journalist Billy Townsend writes in an opinion piece for the Tampa Bay Times, “No other state comes close to Florida’s level of consistent fourth to eighth grade performance collapse.”

In the last three state rankings of reading and math proficiency by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (in 2017, 2019 and 2022), Townsend writes, “Florida ranked sixth, fourth and third among states in fourth grade math. In those same years, Florida ranked 33th, 34th and tied for 31st in eighth grade.”

Moreover, the rate at which they drop below their peers in other states is accelerating. Townsend explains, “Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).” In fact, the deterioration in Florida schools “matches and mostly exceeds the negative impact of COVID” nationwide, he writes.

Florida’s embarrassing drop-off in performance cannot be understood without examining its 20-year-old policy to hold back lower-performing third graders, which means many students take the fourth-grade test when they are at least the age of fifth graders. While it’s unclear how many students are kept back in third grade, Townsend writes that it is “significant,” which likely temporarily boosts the fourth-grade numbers.

But that only delays the inevitable cratering of scores in the eighth grade. Perhaps that is one reason many Florida politicians are shying away from standardized testing.

One likely reason for the shoddy eighth-grade performance: The state ranks 48th in teacher pay, so it’s bound to get rotten results. Right now, few seem motivated to pin down the problem and fix what’s wrong.

And if that isn’t distressing enough, consider what is happening to higher education in Florida. Michael A. MacDowell, president emeritus of Misericordia University, warned in a piece for Florida Today last year that enrollment in the state’s colleges was projected to decline by 5.5 percent in the 2021-2022 academic year.

MacDowell explains, “The implications of declining college enrollments here in Florida and nationally will seriously impact individuals and the economic viability of Florida and the country.” Non-college-educated people tend to be poorer, live shorter lives and pay less taxes. MacDowell also notes that they are “more likely to avail themselves of government subsidies and the wide variety of services that federal, state, and local governments provide” than college-educated Americans.

Yet DeSantis, who has two Ivy League degrees, seems to be cheering for failure. Amid reports in 2021 that men were making up a smaller portion of students attending college, he declared, “I think that is probably a good sign.” So he must be thrilled that Florida’s college enrollment is dropping like a stone.

College administrators are trying to puzzle out why Florida’s decline is so pronounced. It might be an affordability issue. Alternatively, with the White population shrinking in the state, DeSantis’s war on “wokeness” has made college campuses less welcoming to younger, more diverse Floridians — the same people the state needs to educate to maintain a vibrant economy. Whatever the cause, DeSantis doesn’t seem interested in finding a solution.

DeSantis’s bullying of vulnerable populations and pandering to White grievance are morally objectionable and anti-American. But they also come at a price: accelerating the decline of the state’s education system. Do we really want DeSantis to do for America what he’s done to Florida?