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Florida Gov. DeSantis leads a nationwide shift to politicizing school board races

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Something is happening to school board races. What used to be small, local contests are now attracting outside money and attention from groups and political leaders. That's especially the case in Florida. NPR's Greg Allen reports Governor Ron DeSantis has taken an active role in reshaping the politics of Florida school boards.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: A few days before Florida's recent primary election, Governor DeSantis was in Sarasota for a political rally. Joining him were school board candidates from across the state - candidates he had personally endorsed. He called on Floridians to put people on school boards who would support his educational priorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Parents and, I think, students and, I think, Floridians want our school system to be about educating kids, not indoctrinating kids.

(CHEERING)

ALLEN: DeSantis's focus on the schools began a few months into the pandemic when he started feuding with schools over COVID policy. More recently, he signed laws restricting how teachers discuss race and sexual orientation in class. The laws allow teachers to be sued by parents and others who believe they've run afoul of the state guidelines. Civil liberties and teachers' groups have fought these measures, first in the legislature and now in court. Those battles made their way into local school board races. Following the primary, DeSantis's supporters were ebullient. Most candidates endorsed by the governor won.

BRIDGET ZIEGLER: Parents rose up. They were concerned - both moms, dads and even concerned citizens. They wanted to ensure that their public school boards were focused on the education of their children.

ALLEN: That's Bridget Ziegler, who was reelected to the school board in Sarasota County. Two other DeSantis-backed GOP candidates also won, giving them a majority on a school board that had formerly resisted the governor's policies. DeSantis did more than just endorse candidates. He funneled money to those he supported. Even more money poured in from outside groups. It's a marked change for races that are officially nonpartisan, where party affiliation isn't supposed to matter. But Ziegler believes it's time for Florida to dump its nonpartisan designation for school boards.

ZIEGLER: The direction that public K-12 has moved over some sort of time has become extraordinarily progressively liberal, veering on radical liberal, and it's under the guise of nonpartisan races.

ALLEN: Across the country, local school boards have been buffeted by debates involving face masks, gender orientation and critical race theory. And politicians have taken notice. Virginia's Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, campaigned on many of those issues last year and, since being elected, has battled with local school boards. Republicans in other states, including Tennessee and California, have also begun to focus on recruiting and electing candidates to school boards. In Florida's Brevard County, home to Cape Canaveral, Republicans gained control last month of a board that had resisted DeSantis on face masks and other issues. Board member Jennifer Jenkins, a Democrat, says it will have an impact on students and teachers.

JENNIFER JENKINS: Because the policies that DeSantis has put in place are so extreme and so intrusive into our classrooms.

ALLEN: In Brevard and other counties, Jenkins says teachers are on edge, uncertain how to respond to the new laws limiting instruction on issues involving race and sexual orientation. For DeSantis, a possible Republican presidential candidate, Jenkins believes it's part of his campaign to make sure Florida, for years a swing state, continues to trend Republican.

JENKINS: I think big picture, he's creating a regime of loyalists to create a platform that he can brag about as a, quote, unquote, "success" when he runs for presidency in 2024.

ALLEN: DeSantis recently took another action that dramatically reshaped the school board in one of Florida's largest counties. Broward is also the state's most Democratic county. Responding to a grand jury report that alleged mismanagement of district funds, the governor removed four Democrats from the nine-member board and replaced them with Republicans, giving them a majority. Andrew Spar is the head of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. He says it's another way the governor is showing he can rein in school boards.

ANDREW SPAR: In this case, you have a governor who has decided that he is able to play kingmaker and make decisions regardless of what the local communities want.

ALLEN: In Broward County, DeSantis's control of the school board will likely be short-lived. Three of the four Republicans appointed will only serve until November, when new members will be elected. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.