Virginia’s education wars emerge in Florida governor’s race

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida is learning the political lessons of Virginia.

Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist, fearing the new culture wars over education could strain his bid for Florida governor, is appealing directly to parents over an issue that has rattled Democrats across the county. “Parents for Crist,” a group he unveiled last week, will shape his campaign in coming months.

The group will be an “organizing force for our campaign in our mission to protect education,” said Crist, a former Republican governor in Florida, as he announced the approach.

Crist’s move is a clear attempt to boost his chances in the wake of Virginia’s big November upset, where Republican Glenn Youngkin trounced Democrat Terry McAuliffe in part by tapping into parents’ anger with local school boards over issues like mask mandates and critical race theory. President Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points just a year earlier.

State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Miami-area Republican, says there is little doubt education will play a key role in the 2022 midterms and that Republicans have a head start.

“School choice and parent’s rights to have a say in their children’s education has already shown to be a leading issue in the Virginia election. In 2022, this will be a determining factor with voters in Florida,” Diaz said. “While candidates clearly recognize this, you can’t artificially create parent movements.”

Youngkin’s embrace of education issues is widely credited with helping him win in Virginia, a southern state that had in recent years moved blue. He held a series of “Parents Rallies” across Virginia and said his focus on the issue was designed to be replicated by Republicans across the country.

Now, with 36 governorships on the ballot this year, that Virginia playbook is being put into practice by Republicans — and Democrats like Crist will have to be on the offensive.

Education has emerged as one of the most heated political or policy issues of the Covid era. Parents have clashed over how their children are taught, where they’re taught and what they’re taught, and have fought against issues like critical race theory and book-banning. Gov. Ron DeSantis too has made education one of his top priorities and regularly blasts “wokeness” in schools while attempting to wrestle control of education from school boards.

Political takeaways from Youngkin’s high-profile win in Virginia have quickly seeped into Florida as the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature considers education bills and DeSantis prepares for his reelection bid in November.

Florida Republicans, led by DeSantis, have been amplifying education wedge issues headed into the midterms, focusing on proposals they say would ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and devoting more attention to often little-noticed school board races in an attempt to harness the same sort of parental anger that helped propel Younkin to victory.

“Governor DeSantis pushed for schools to remain open in 2020 and today it is recognized to have been the right thing to do,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, in a statement. “Those who stand up for parent rights and individual liberties will win in 2022.”

Even before Youngkin’s surprise win, DeSantis prioritized parental choice in schools.

Over the summer and fall, the Florida governor fought with local school boards and the Biden administration as he sought to ban mask mandates in schools and withheld state funding from districts that disobeyed his edict.

“Democrats are learning from past mistakes,” said Joshua Karp, a Crist spokesperson. “Parents have been through so much over the last two years as the pandemic has roiled public education and created some never ending political culture wars like in Virginia.”

“We just have to communicate to parents who have lived through so much now,” he added. “Late breaking issues like we saw in Virginia campaigns caught us by surprise, but it won’t anymore.”

Crist, a former Republican governor who is now a Democratic member of Congress from St. Petersburg, is the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Florida to put together a group focused specifically on parents. The field also includes state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo.

The trio largely agree on the policy front, with each slamming Republicans’ focus on critical race theory as a made-up issue that is not actually taught in state schools, and supporting things like the ability for school districts to mandate mask-wearing in classrooms amid the ongoing Covid pandemic.

Leading Crist’s group is Jabari Hosey, president of Families for Safe Schools in Brevard County, which has received outsize attention in some of the state’s most prominent education fights.

“In Brevard, a small group of loud individuals, our governor and select school board members in our district decided masks do not work,” Hosey said last week.

The latest front in Florida’s politically-tinged education battles played out in the Florida Senate last week when a key education panel advanced along party lines the DeSantis-championed “Stop Woke Act,” which supporters say will crack down on teaching critical race theory.

Critical race theory is an analytical framework originally developed by legal scholars examining how race and racism have become ingrained in American law and institutions. Opponents of the bill charge that it’s not taught in Florida’s K-12 schools, while supporters say the bill is needed to make sure it never is.

The legislation does not contain a key component sought by DeSantis that would allow parents to sue their local schools for teaching lessons grounded in critical race theory, but the bill has momentum with Republican legislators as lawmakers finish the second week of the state’s legislative session.

“Our students should, when they graduate from school, understand our history — the good parts and the bad parts,” Diaz told reporters last week. “But at the same time, I think it’s important that we’re not imposing a slanted view from either perspective on what has occurred across the history of our country.”

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