The third in our three-part series on the right-wing players around Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for governor of Florida.
When Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican candidate for governor, found himself in hot water—once again—over his beliefs about black people and America’s racial history, a handful of wealthy donors swooped in to try to rescue his campaign. Polls showed him in a dead heat against Democrat Andrew Gillum, who is African American.
Among the angels to alight in his coffers was the heiress Betsy DeVos, who currently leads the U.S. Department of Education, and whose family enriched a pro-DeSantis political action committee this month with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The DeVos family has long invested in the project of building a right-wing political infrastructure that is designed to elevate the policy prescriptions of white evangelical leaders, as has DeVos’ family of origin, the Princes. (Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, is DeVos’ brother. Her parents, Elsa and Edgar, helped found the Family Research Council, which is classified as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
It’s not surprising that DeVos would want to rescue DeSantis. Take a look at the education agenda he has put forward and you’ll find a wish list of goodies for Religious Right leaders and other “small-government conservatives.” And even more than that, the specter of a progressive Democrat like Gillum leading education policy in a state as populous as Florida (20 million) could create a significant pocket of resistance to any federal policy imposed by DeVos.
While DeSantis may not be especially involved with the evangelical community, he knows on which side his bread is buttered. DeVos, champion of the privatization of education, and the Trump administration’s secretary of education, descends from Religious Right royalty. When Trump chose DeVos for that spot, it was because he knew on which side his base is buttered—the evangelical side.
Right-wing evangelicals and Catholics favor school voucher plans and supports for homeschoolers that siphon money away from public schools, as well as from the public-sector unions that represent teachers and other school personnel, all positions DeVos advances. The vouchers amount to tax dollars applied to tuition at private schools and those run by churches and other religious organizations. (For more on DeVos’ record as a school privatizer, see PFAW’s 2017 report, A New High Water Mark in Right Wing’s Long War on Public Education.)
In fact, on a visit to New York City last spring, the U.S. secretary of education seemed to go out of her way to insult public-school students and teachers by choosing two religious schools for a visit, but none of the city’s public schools. From a May 18 New York Times report:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured two New York City schools on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the city’s public schools, with their 1.1 million students, were not among them.
Instead, Ms. DeVos visited two Orthodox Jewish schools, and offered her strongest comments to date in support of public funding for religious schools in a meeting with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and other Catholic dignitaries.
In addition to his pro-voucher position, DeSantis stood behind Amendment 8—a measure ultimately struck from the 2018 ballot by the Florida Supreme Court for being “misleading”—which would have yanked control of charter schools from local school boards and handed it to the state—through changes to the state constitution. Conservatives have found certain localities to be unwelcoming to charter schools.
The measure would also have imposed eight-year term limits on local school boards. Absent the ballot measure, DeSantis has folded those positions into his own education policy agenda.
The court’s actions stirred right-wing ire about the ideological balance of the state’s highest court. Governor Rick Scott, who is currently challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson for his seat, had planned to replace three of the court’s justices just hours after he leaves office, but the court overruled his power-grab. Because of term limits on the state’s Supreme Court justices, three retirements will kick in automatically in January, leaving the next governor to determine the shape of the court.
SINCE WINNING the Florida GOP gubernatorial nomination, DeSantis’ attitudes towards African Americans have attracted scrutiny, beginning with comments he made at the outset of the general election campaign, when he urged Floridians to “not monkey this up” by electing Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, who is black. Something of a steady trickle commenced, with DeSantis having to ditch a fundraiser, state Rep. Ralph Arza, who had used the “N” word in threatening voicemails to a colleague 12 years ago, and who has a reputation for using racial slurs. Next, the Washington Post published a report on DeSantis’ participation in the far-right conferences convened by David Horowitz, where he appeared on the same stage as the professionally offensive, white-nationalism-sympathizer Milo Yiannapoulos, and other far-right figures. Then, on October 8, the American Ledger blog published by the American Bridge super PAC unearthed a book he authored that made excuses for slavery in the U.S. The DeSantis campaign was losing momentum, virtually tied with Gillum in the polls.
Three days later, the candidate’s PAC, Friends of Ron DeSantis, received a total of $200,000 from four members of Betsy DeVos’ family, as well as infusions from others in the donor network created by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch.
Each of those donors no doubt has his or her own checklist of expectations and demands, but DeSantis’ school privatization agenda seems robust, hitting all of the key constituencies: the homeschoolers, the religious schools, the union-haters.
Some of the candidate’s education agenda, as posted on the Ron DeSantis for Governor website:
Support School Choice Options. To ensure that all Florida students can go to a good school and empower parents to make educational decisions for their children, Ron DeSantis will support school choice options such as public magnet schools, district & non-district managed public charter schools, Florida Virtual School, home education, and the various other choice options. DeSantis will also look at the possibility of creating Education Savings Accounts for more Florida students including those from low-income and working-class families.
Ensure Equal Access for Parents Who Home School Their Children. To support the families of the nearly 90,000 students in Florida that are home schooled, Ron DeSantis will ensure that these children have equal access to resources available to other students, such as dual enrollment and extracurricular activities. The decision on how a child should be educated is best left to their family, as no far-away bureaucrat could ever understand a child the way a parent does. For many Florida families, homeschooling provides the best opportunity to educate their children.
DeSantis also embraces a so-called “merit pay” scheme that seems designed to pit teacher against teacher, and teachers against non-teaching staff, by pledging to cut “wasteful” spending on the education “bureaucracy,” and funneling that “savings” into merit increases for selected teachers.
Like DeSantis, DeVos is a fan of charter schools, which also draw their funding from tax dollars, but exist outside the traditional public school system. In April 2017, DeVos visited the Excel Academy, a public charter school in Washington, D.C., describing it as a “shining example of a school meeting the needs of its students, parents and community.” By January 2018, the school had closed because of its poor performance.
Of course, there are reasons beyond DeSantis’ education agenda that make him an attractive repository for DeVos dollars. The family owns the Orlando Magic basketball team, a business, like any, that could always use a friend in the governor’s mansion.
Read more in our series on DeSantis and the right: