Book bans, learning loss, and school closures featured prominently in a fiery debate between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, confirming that schools are as entrenched in the blue state-red state divide as ever.
The Fox News debate on Thursday, Nov. 30, was a rare instance in which a Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis, squared off with a rival politician not running for office, Newsom, a Democrat seen as a future White House contender. While the debate touched on a number of topics, it was an opportunity for two governors on opposite ends of the political spectrum who lead two of the nation’s most populous states to litigate the divisive politics that have made the nation’s schools a culture war battleground.
DeSantis and Newsom have both made education policies a cornerstone of their tenures in office; both are serving their second terms as governor.
In Florida, DeSantis enacted the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, prohibiting instruction about sexuality and gender identity for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. The Florida Department of Education has since approved a rule that expands the prohibition through the 12th grade, and the policy has inspired similar laws in other Republican-led states.
In California, Newsom has aggressively resisted some of the parents’ rights policies DeSantis and other conservatives have championed, especially as some California school boards have approved such policies locally. Earlier this year, the governor threatened to fine the Temecula Valley Unified School District $1.5 million for rejecting an updated state curriculum because it included lesson plans that mentioned Harvey Milk, the late San Francisco supervisor who was the state’s first openly gay elected official and a gay rights activist. Earlier this fall, Newsom signed legislation outlawing bans on curriculum materials and school library books on those grounds.
A battle in the culture war
In the approximately 5-minute segment of the 90-minute debate that was dedicated to schools, DeSantis accused Newsom of allowing schools to groom and indoctrinate students while Newsom chastised the Florida governor for passing policies that harm LGBTQ+ youth and students of color.
“What you’re doing is using education as a sword for your cultural purge,” Newsom said, repeatedly mentioning that Florida has seen some of the largest numbers in the country of books removed from school libraries.
Newsom accused DeSantis of banning acclaimed works by writers including Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize winner, and Amanda Gorman, who read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021. Both women’s writings address the experience of Black Americans.
A Miami-Dade County school, for example, restricted access to “The Hill We Climb” last summer, according to NPR. Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was removed from high school libraries in Pinellas County, Fla., in January. The school board allowed the book to return to libraries in April, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Book removals have been local, not state, decisions. But many have happened as districts try to comply with new Florida laws restricting lessons about race and racism, gender and sexual identity, and requiring school librarians to review books and remove inappropriate content. State guidance on implementing those policies has sometimes lacked detail or kept changing.
DeSantis denied that his policies have led those books to be banned and instead used his time to talk about the graphic novel, “Gender Queer,” which has become one of the most commonly removed books from school libraries for its depictions of characters involved in sex acts.
“This should not be in schools,” DeSantis said, holding up a page of the book. “People on the left say that somehow you’re banning books by removing this from a young kid’s classroom. No, this is not age-appropriate.”
DeSantis went on to accuse Newsom of allowing young students to read books like “Gender Queer,” which Newsom denied.
“We have sex education in middle schools and high schools where it’s appropriate,” Newsom said. “This is a ginned-up, made-up issue to divide this country.”
DeSantis went on to say that his policies are about promoting parents’ rights to object to classroom materials and lessons that don’t align with their values. The presidential candidate vowed to pass a nationwide parental bill of rights if he’s elected.
Republicans in the U.S. House have passed such a bill, but the Senate, controlled by Democrats, hasn’t taken it up. The legislation codifies five rights for parents—including to be heard by school leaders, see school budgets, and know what their children are being taught—that parents typically already have.
Newsom argued that DeSantis’s policies don’t actually boost parents’ rights, and highlighted a California policy that requires schools to solicit parent input before adopting curriculum. DeSantis rejected that assessment.
“He says California respects parents’ rights. This is rich,” DeSantis said. “He’s been telling a lot of whoppers tonight. This may be the biggest.”
Pandemic continues to play a role
The governors went back and forth over how each state handled school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and those closures’ impact on student learning.
Neither Florida nor California saw a statistically significant change in 4th-grade reading performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2019 and 2022. Meanwhile, Florida’s 8th graders performed worse on the reading exam in 2022 than in 2019, while California’s 8th graders’ performance was unchanged. Both states performed worse on the 4th- and 8th-grade math assessments in 2022 than in 2019.
Despite their states’ similar performance on NAEP, which places both states above the majority of the rest of the country, the two governors accused each other of overseeing some of the worst learning loss in the country.
DeSantis argued that Newsom’s decision to keep a majority of schools in the state closed to in-person instruction through the end of the 2020-21 school year—his executive order didn’t allow schools in high-risk counties to reopen until those counties had met certain infection and hospital capacity benchmarks—was to blame. Schools in California fully reopened in the 2021-22 school year while Florida schools resumed in-person instruction in the 2020-21 school year.
“[Newsom] kept the schools closed for a long time and that had devastating impacts,” DeSantis said. “What Gavin Newsom does in California is kowtow to the teachers’ union, whatever they tell him to do, he does … that’s why the schools were closed for so long.”