ORLANDO, Fla. — Education took center stage on Friday as Florida’s governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis spoke in Orlando.
Delivering remarks at the Florida Homeschool Convention, DeSantis touted the Sunshine State’s recent ranking as No. 1 overall in education and No. 1 for higher education by U.S. News & World Report.
“The state of Florida has really embraced the importance of education and fundamental role that parents play in the education of their own children,” DeSantis said.
WATCH: Florida’s governor speaks at education convention
Presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at education convention
The governor, who announced his 2024 presidential run on Wednesday, will officially kick off his campaign’s “Our Great American Comeback Tour” next week with stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
During the four-day swing, DeSantis will hold events in 12 cities and towns, according to campaign manager Generra Peck.
Education, the main focus of Friday’s event in Orlando, has been one of DeSantis’ most important and controversial priorities during his two terms as Florida’s governor.
Under his leadership, the Sunshine State has limited instruction gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through twelfth grade in Florida public schools, restricted discussion of personal pronouns in schools, banned the teaching of critical race theory, and eliminated state and federal spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at publicly-funded colleges in Florida.
The DeSantis Administration has also enacted legislation that allows parents, guardians, and community members to challenge the books and instructional materials in schools, which has led to dozens of publications being removed or relocated.
“You have a right to know what is being taught in your kid’s school. And if there are materials that are inappropriate because of age or they violate Florida standards, you have the right to blow the whistle,” DeSantis said.
Could Ron DeSantis’ controversial education policies resonate nationwide?
Some of DeSantis’ education decisions have been celebrated across party lines, like eliminating Common Core standards and increasing funding for school security.
In addition, the governor recently signed legislation that allocates more than $1 billion for teacher pay in this year’s budget, a $252 million increase over last year.
Despite that, Florida still ranks 48th in the country for average teacher salary at a little more than $51,000, according to new numbers from the National Education Association.
WATCH: Florida among worst in the nation for average teacher salary
Florida among worst in the nation for average teacher salary
“Ron DeSantis made it clear that if he becomes president, he plans to bring these reforms nationwide,” WPTV political analyst Brian Crowley said. “Use the power of the federal dollar, federal grants, and even accreditation of colleges as a way of enforcing his agenda for how he wants to make schools more conservative and, in his view, back to basic learning.”
In August of last year, the non-profit free speech organization PEN America researched what it called “educational gag orders,” looking at legislative efforts to restrict teaching certain topics.
The study showed 36 different states introduced 137 of these bills in 2022. But only six states passed them, including Florida.
“There’s some really huge changes underway, and I think in some of those states that are very cautious about those changes, Ron DeSantis is going to have to be very careful if he wins the nomination to bring those people to his side,” Crowley said.
DeSantis is casting himself as the only legitimate Republican rival in the GOP’s crowded primary to former President Donald Trump, who holds a big lead in early polls, along with a firm grip on a significant portion of the GOP’s passionate base.
Yet Trump is plagued by his own baggage, which includes multiple legal threats and a fixation on his 2020 election loss.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ team is opening the campaign with tens of millions of dollars in the bank, including the $8.2 million raised since Wednesday’s announcement, part of which came from donations secured by bundlers gathered Thursday in Miami.
“I don’t think you can find another state that’s done more in this country in our lifetimes to support education and the greater cause of liberty than we right here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said Friday. “I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.”
An adviser to DeSantis’ allied super PAC said the group began with $33 million in the bank and 30 full-time paid staff already in place across the first four states on the presidential primary calendar, with many more hires already planned for the subsequent 14 states to hold primary contests.
No other Republican presidential candidate has such an infrastructure in place, including Trump. His aides declined to say how many staff he has in early states.
“The only numbers we’ll talk about are the huge leads President Trump is racking up in the early states,” spokesman Steven Cheung said.