In late 2021, parental rights candidate Glenn Youngkin secured his stay at Virginia’s Executive Mansion with a push from devoted “mama bears”—a group of, yes, mothers, who were angry about a perceived threat of government overreach and ideological indoctrination in schools. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis counts on his army of Moms for Liberty to propel his crusade to reshape public education. “This really was the year of the parent,” DeSantis said last year while celebrating the passage of a piece of legislation restricting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation that he later signed.
It was only a matter of time before former president Donald Trump seized the mic to try to win over the hearts—and votes—of discontented parents. On his first visit to Iowa since officially announcing his early bid for the Republican nomination last November, the former president vowed to “bring back parental rights into our school system,” noting how “the place goes crazy” every time he talks about this subject at his rallies.
The event at the Adler Theatre in Davenport was intended to showcase Trump’s “America First Education Policy” agenda. Still, he didn’t touch on the issue until after more than one hour into the almost two-hour-long speech. The former president first had to celebrate the MAGA movement, disparage the media, tout his immigration and economic policies, and make snide comments about his potential rival. “Ron was a disciple of Paul Ryan, who was a RINO [Republican In Name Only] loser who is currently destroying Fox,” said Trump, who was defeated by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican caucuses. He also accused the Florida governor of wanting to cut social security and Medicare.
When he finally arrived at the subject of education, Trump opened the well-worn playbook that included right-wing moral panic and some of DeSantis’ favorite talking points. “I will immediately sign a new executive order to cut federal funding for any school that is pushing Critical Race Theory, transgender insanity…and any other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children,” he announced. Add to that, he would withdraw funding from schools with vaccine and mask mandates, “keep men out of women sports,” allow parents to elect school principals, and dismantle the Department of Education. “I was ready to get it done then we had a bad election,” he said. “But this is what must be done to save our country from destruction.” He also promised to expand universal school choice to every state. Describing the 2024 elections as the “final battle,” Trump promised to end “the era of weaponized government” and “woke.”
The former president previously had announced his education proposals as a way of asserting his presence in the crowded conservative culture wars field. In a video released in January, he warned, “Our public schools have been taken over by the radical left.” His remedy was a plan in which he would direct the Justice and Education Departments to “open civil rights investigations into any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination, that includes discrimination against Asian Americans.” His administration also would “find and remove the radical zealots and Marxists who have infiltrated” the DoE. Trump promised to create a new credential body to certify teachers “who embrace patriotic values,” eliminate tenure for K-12 teachers, cut back on the number of school administrators, and create a parents’ bill of rights focused on curriculum transparency and universal school choice. As president, Trump issued an executive order to expand school choice and created the 1776 Commission to counter the New York Times‘ 1619 Project and promote education focused on the “principles of the American founding.”
Trump’s speech in Iowa on Monday came just a few days after DeSantis appeared alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to promote his new book, The Courage to Be Free. The Florida governor bragged about implementing “higher ed reforms.” These included requiring that tenured professors undergo reviews every five years; appointing six conservatives to the board of trustees of New College who then fired the president and eliminated a diversity, equity, and inclusion office; eradicating gender ideology and promoting a “civics bootcamp” for teachers; and proposing a teacher’s bill of rights that would invest in increasing teacher’s pay while also cracking down on unions.
At times during their conversation, DeSantis and Reynolds seemed to be competing for a medal for governing over the most anti-woke state. The Iowa governor recently signed a sweeping school choice legislation making state funds available for students to attend private schools. Meanwhile, the state legislature has passed a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender kids, which has yet to reach the governor’s desk.
DeSantis and Kim Reynolds signed this copy of DeSantis’ book. pic.twitter.com/n0Lvmt1fsW
— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) March 11, 2023
Trump and DeSantis are not the only (likely) GOP contenders hoping to appeal to voters by making education reform a centerpiece. While in Iowa in February, Nikki Haley called Reynolds “the best governor in the country” for reopening schools during the pandemic and advancing school choice. “We would not have problems in education if we put education back where it needs to be, in the hands of the parents,” the former governor of South Carolina and Tump’s UN ambassador said. “We have to have school choice all over this country.”
As the Monday event drew to a close, Trump took questions from the audience. The first came from a member of Moms for Liberty who described schools as “indoctrination camps” and asked how he would “get back to the basics” in classrooms. (Trump’s campaign reportedly invited local chapters of the Florida-based group to attend the event, according to the Wall Street Journal.) “We have to get back to common sense,” Trump said. “What they are teaching in schools today is insane. We’re going to do something.”