One year ago, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that banned the instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to third-grade classrooms. Now, he’s trying to expand the law to cover all grade levels. This raises the question: By doing so, who is DeSantis — famous for his political cunning — trying to serve?
Here’s a hint: It’s not the third-graders now safe from leftist “grooming.” DeSantis wants to win elections, and third-graders can’t vote.
Some might argue he’s trying to help concerned parents. But that’s not quite right either — wokeness in elementary schools was hardly on anyone’s radar until DeSantis made it a national story. During the administrations of DeSantis’s Republican predecessors, few understood what critical race theory was, and disgruntled parents weren’t delivering impassioned political commentary at school board meetings en masse. DeSantis didn’t capitalize on preexisting mistrust of his state’s public education system. He created the mistrust, turning a nonissue into a highly effective wedge in service of himself and his presidential ambitions.
To be clear, some of DeSantis’s gripes with liberal bias in education are legitimate. Conservative students are often silenced and sidelined in the classroom, and the nuances regarding transgender athletes are grounds for a policy debate. Yet, rather than focusing on the issues that matter most to students, a disproportionate amount of DeSantis’s messaging is fixated on inconsequential minutia cherry-picked for maximal coverage on Fox News (including, for whatever reason, drag queens). This underlying reason is clear: DeSantis doesn’t care about creating solutions for students as much as he cares about furthering his political career.
Still, it’s not only DeSantis. Over the past few years, Democrats have also been guilty of weaponizing education in order to score political points. At the behest of teachers unions — a dependable source of campaign funds — Democrats kept schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic longer than was prudent and then mandated masks for many months thereafter. Recently, the Democratic governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, signed a bill allowing school principals to strike, despite possible negative ramifications for students.
This is all problematic. Normally, in a democracy, politicians must serve the interests of their constituents, lest they be voted out of office when the next election rolls around — this is why elected officials don’t purposefully antagonize fishermen, auto workers, or firefighters. With grade school students, however, politicians lack the accountability that they face with members of other occupations since thosestudents are not voting age and thus have fewer avenues for recourse against ill-fated policy prescriptions.
Shrewd politicians like DeSantis have realized this and made education a winning issue — for themselves. In recent years, critical race theory — the academic concept that racism is embedded into US laws and institutions — has been hammered ad nauseam in conservative media during the lead-up to an election season, in order to boost Republican candidates, only for the outrage to die down after Election Day passes. So far, the strategy is working — education-related controversies have been credited with powering both Glenn Youngkin’s upset gubernatorial victory in 2021 and DeSantis’s blowout reelection in 2022. Other politicians are now copying DeSantis and Youngkin, doubling down on the issue and putting American students at the center of their political messaging for 2024.
These wins for powerful grown-ups come at the expense of kids who just want to learn. Education isn’t meant to be political — it’s for acquiring skills such as writing, reading, and arithmetic that will set students up for success. Yet, these academic ends are needlessly hindered when Republican culture war controversies result in teachers covering their bookshelves in wrapping paper out of fear of prosecution or when Democrats bow down to powerful unions and keep kids out of the classroom. Voters should fight back — the next generation of leaders shouldn’t be reduced to mere pawns in an increasingly cynical political chess match.
Alex Shieh is a contributing Opinion writer. He is founder and chief pollster of The Phillips Academy Poll, a polling firm run by members of Gen Z. Follow him at @alexkshieh.