DeSantis’s Triumph, Kemp’s Test

Published December 20, 2022

National Review Online

Ron DeSantis continues to win cultural battles that most Republicans preemptively abandon or, worse, don’t even know exist. This is especially so in the area of education. Over and above signing the widely discussed Parental Rights in Education bill, DeSantis vetoed an action-civics bill when few Republicans understood what action civics even was. He laid out a far-reaching program of higher-education reform when most Republican governors avoid the subject. And he went after the higher-education establishment’s politicized abuse of accreditation agencies, provoking pushback from the Biden administration. (There was little to be gained politically by taking on the obscure but crucial issue of accreditation, yet DeSantis did it anyway.) Remarkably, however, what may be DeSantis’s most important education achievement is still barely known, although it’s two years old.

In 2020, DeSantis effectively repealed and replaced Common Core, making Florida likely the only state to have truly rid itself of this albatross after having fully adopted it. This was not the deceptive rebranding undertaken by many governors after the public soured on Common Core. No, DeSantis created genuinely new, high-quality reading and math standards, and they are now arguably the best such standards in the country. DeSantis’s rigorous math standards shed the lax and “fuzzy” new-age approach favored by Common Core, while his reading standards restored classic literature to its proper place at the center of the English curriculum (while giving local school districts plenty of scope to fill in the details).

DeSantis’s Florida English language arts (ELA) and math standards ought to stand as national models, now that the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and periodic statewide tweaking of education standards has begun to kick in. Yet a zombified Common Core lurches on. We see the problem in Georgia, where newly revised English standards not only fail to break decisively with Common Core, but purge great literature even more thoroughly than it was purged before. Georgia’s lamentable draft English standards are all the more troubling, since Republicans control the state.

Republican governor Brian Kemp was just handily reelected, as was Georgia’s Republican state school superintendent Richard Woods. It’s not too late for Kemp, Woods, and the Georgia State Board of Education to intervene to set things right. Yet the fact that a bad revision of Georgia’s ELA standards has gotten this far points to a larger problem.

Republican governors and state education superintendents notwithstanding, even in red states, education bureaucracies are run by the Left. Sadly, Republican officeholders generally allow woke education bureaucrats to have their way. Sometimes, Republicans get fooled because they aren’t up to speed on the bureaucracy’s latest intellectual fashions, obscure jargon, and strategic deceptions. In other cases, GOP officials simply surrender, fearing a high-profile battle on unfamiliar terrain, with the media against them. DeSantis proves that all this can be reversed, but are Republicans in other states prepared to follow his lead? If not, we’ll lose the culture no matter how many elections we win.

You can read about DeSantis’s replacement of the failed Common Core in a 2020 report from the Independent Institute called “Better than Common Core: Florida’s New K-12 Standards Raise the Bar.” The report says that Florida’s English language arts and math standards truly do depart from Common Core. More, it calls them “the strongest [reading and math standards] currently in use in the United States.” The report adds that with some slight tweaks, the Florida standards “can stand as a new model for the country.”

There are several reasons why DeSantis’s breakthrough on statewide reading and math standards has largely been overlooked. First, Florida’s new standards were published about a month before the Covid lockdown hit. Controversy over how to handle the pandemic quickly overwhelmed other news. Second, as the report notes, “more than twenty states . . . either rebranded their Common Core State Standards or pretended to rewrite them, while leaving the main elements of the CCSS intact.” According to the report, this minor retooling and bogus relabeling of the same old Common Core was “explicitly intended to fool the public.” With so many states claiming to be Spartacus, the real Spartacus was impossible to spot.

Finally, DeSantis’s standards were criticized, shortly after they appeared, by the Fordham Institute, the chief public defender of Common Core. Some people still think of Fordham as a conservative education think tank. As I see it, however, the Independent Institute has been far more thoughtfully and reliably conservative on education matters than Fordham in recent years. In any case, the Independent Institute report devastated Fordham’s critique of DeSantis’s break from Common Core. But again, all this played out at the height of the pandemic and simply got lost.

The wonderful thing about Florida’s new English standards is the way they restore classic literature to its rightful place in the curriculum. The education Left wants to ditch substantive “knowledge” (about authors like Shakespeare or Austen, or about literary periods like the classical era or the Renaissance) in favor of a focus on “skills.” The delusion here is that knowledge and skills can be separated. In practice, the focus on skills simply serves as an excuse to scrap the great works of Western literature. The seemingly bland and apolitical jargon of “skills” is also manipulated to inject leftist politics into the classroom.

Florida’s English standards reject this approach, emphasizing instead universal themes explored by great literature across a wide variety of periods. In contrast, classic literature is nowhere to be found in Georgia’s draft English standards. Instead, Georgia encourages students to identify the effects of social and historical influences on the biases of a given author. These may be useful “skills,” yet by emphasizing them exclusively — and in the absence of great literature that explores universal human themes — Georgia’s approach cultivates a shallow reductionism that prompts students to dismiss the great literary works as dated.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Georgia’s Emory University for years (who consulted on Florida’s new standards), offered a powerful critique of Georgia’s draft English standards in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. What a shame that, while Florida brought in a Georgian like Bauerlein, one of our best conservative defenders of the Western literary tradition, Georgia allowed woke bureaucrats to run its standards process instead.

There are several lessons here. First, DeSantis is the real deal. He knows what to fight for, and wins cultural battles before others are even out of the blocks. I have a hard time keeping up with him. DeSantis’s overturning of Common Core, not to mention his creation of reading and math standards that can serve as alternative national models, are major accomplishments, and have gotten far too little recognition.

Second, other states need to break with the failed Common Core, using the new Florida standards as a model and inspiration. The fact that this has not already happened shows how far most Republican officeholders have to go in rising to the cultural challenge. Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin have proven that education is a winning issue. Yet many Republican elected officials continue to rubber-stamp initiatives produced by woke state-level education bureaucrats, partly out of ignorance, and partly in fear of fighting on unfamiliar turf. That has to change, or winning statewide elections will be nothing but a waste of time.

There is much to be said in favor of Governor Kemp’s education policy. In significant part because of Kemp, Georgia passed a strong anti-CRT bill during this past year’s legislative session. Governor Kemp does not shrink from the cultural battle. It’s also true that Georgia state school superintendent Richard Woods is independently elected and is not an appointee of the governor. That said, somebody in Georgia has dropped the ball, and ultimately the governor has to take responsibility. It’s not too late to fix this, but time is running short. If Georgia’s Republican victory is to be worth something, Georgia’s draft standards in English language arts must be scrapped. New standards, broadly along the lines of the Florida model, are what’s needed.

In general, Georgia and other red states must stop rubber-stamping woke initiatives produced by state-level education bureaucrats. If we are going to save the culture, it will take serious pushback against the powers that be. Autopilot won’t do. DeSantis is walking the walk, but Republican state officials across the country have to change their ways as well if our schools are to be saved.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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