Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has shown that waging cultural warfare over education can pay off with voters, and now Donald Trump is looking to get in on the action.
The former president, who is making another bid for the White House in 2024, is slated to deliver remarks on education policy at a campaign event in the key early voting state of Iowa on Monday.
Much of what Trump is expected to outline appears to be cribbed from DeSantis’ conservative playbook, including prohibitions on teaching so-called critical race theory and “gender ideology” while giving parents a greater say in their local schools by adopting a “Parental Bill of Rights.”
“It looks like he is trying to catch up on an issue that DeSantis got out ahead of him on,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican operative in Iowa who worked for the Jeb Bush presidential campaign.
The coronavirus pandemic gave rise to a host of hot-button issues surrounding education that have mobilized the Republican base in the years since Trump left the White House. Conservative governors such as DeSantis and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin zeroed in on what they viewed as overly progressive efforts in public schools, including around the teaching of the U.S. history of racism and gender fluidity concepts.
The focus on cultural fights in education has continued as Republicans gear up for primary battles to come. Polls show the messages have galvanized conservatives and hold some potential appeal to independents and Democrats, depending on the particular policy involved.
DeSantis was in Iowa on Friday, speaking at a pair of political events that appear to be laying groundwork for a presidential bid. His education agenda in Florida was a recurring theme in his remarks, and DeSantis credited it as a reason that he convincingly won re-election last year.
“I think we have really done a great job of drawing a line in the sand to say the purpose of our schools is to educate kids not to indoctrinate kids,” he said to cheers from the crowd in Des Moines.
DeSantis has asked the Florida legislature to expand a ban on teaching gender-identity concepts to eighth grade from third grade currently. He is working to dismantle diversity and equity offices in state universities and has engineered a conservative takeover of a small Florida college.
He recently worked with the national parents’ rights group, Moms for Liberty, to fashion a target list of liberal school board members to challenge in Florida.
“He has made a lot of decisions to make a lot of moms happy in this country,” said the group’s co-founder, Tina Descovich.
Descovich said the group, which has 115,000 members in 44 states, will not play a formal role in the 2024 race, perhaps denying DeSantis a ready-made national army of activists.
That could leave an opening for Trump, who made school choice a priority in his administration but lacks the track record on state-level education issues that DeSantis and other governors have.
Trump did not shy away from his own culture-war fights as president, from his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, to his refusal to condemn white supremacists, to denouncing football players protesting racial injustice.
But he has been slow to move on from his preoccupation with his 2020 electoral defeat and the multiple investigations stemming from his post-election conduct. His speeches of late have been laden more with grievance than policy.
A Trump aide said that while his speech on Monday will touch on education issues, he will also speak more generally about his administration’s accomplishments to make a broad appeal to Iowa voters.
The state holds the party’s first nominating contest early next year in the race to take on President Joe Biden, who is widely expected to launch his re-election campaign soon.
Some of Trump’s education ideas include rewarding teachers who teach “patriotic values” and requiring direct election of school principals by parents, although how he would bring that about is unclear.
As is his style, Trump’s language around education policy is more hyperbolic than the lower-key DeSantis.
In a video on his campaign website, Trump said “our public schools have been taken over by the radical left maniacs” and argued that “Marxism being preached in our schools” resembles a “new religion.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized Trump’s approach.
“Rather than increasingly toxic culture wars, voters say schools should get back to basics,” Weingarten said in a statement to Reuters.
Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, another conservative parents’ rights group, said DeSantis getting out ahead of Trump on the issue should not hurt the former president.
“Voters will mostly care about the candidate’s record on these issues and whether or not they have been fighting for their families and children,” Schilling said. “Trump passes that test with flying colors.”