Marta Perez served on the Florida school board for 24 years. During that time, she advocated for a Bible study class for students, spoke out against a plan to strengthen anti-racism curricula in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and opposed the adoption of a textbook that featured images of contraceptive methods she felt were inappropriate for her 13-year-old granddaughter.
She was a target of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, but despite her lengthy history of backing conservative issues, she was unable to retain her position. Last week, Perez was defeated for a Miami-Dade school board seat by a former teacher who was one of the DeSantis-backed candidates.
Perez thinks she offended DeSantis by supporting a school mask requirement a year into the epidemic, when Florida was experiencing its worst COVID-19 wave. DeSantis is against such measures.
“What it revealed was that I wasn’t following the governor’s lead exactly. I disobeyed the governor, and that is unacceptable,” the 71-year-old Perez added.
DeSantis has taken the lead in transforming cultural conflicts over anti-racism laws, sexuality, and COVID-19 limits in schools into national concerns more than virtually any other national politician. In recent years, he has intervened in school board contests in an effort to broaden his base of support and inspire conservatives while seeking reelection and exploring a 2024 presidential candidacy.
19 of the 30 candidates DeSantis sponsored won, five lost, and six are moving on to runoffs in the elections held on August 23.
In his victory address on election night, DeSantis stated, “We got engaged to support candidates that were battling the system, fighting the lock-downers, fighting the forced-maskers, fighting the individuals who want to indoctrinate our kids.” “Parents are fed up with the BS surrounding schooling. We want that schools teach children.
Although elections for school boards are nonpartisan, the governor’s intervention in at least three Florida school boards helped shift their political leanings from liberal to conservative. According to election results released by counties, five of his choices upset Democratic incumbents, while others ran for vacant seats and at least two defeated Republicans, including Perez.
Sarah Reckhow, an education expert who teaches American politics and public policy at Michigan State University, said that “he is attempting to promote this as part of his political brand.”
Reckhow remarked that during the COVID-19 epidemic, when districts were deciding how and when students would return to the schools, parents and other stakeholders were more aware of the function and significance of school board members.
The school argument changed to how kids are learning about racism, gender, and sexual orientation as cries for requirements and mask wearing subsided. In the Virginia governor’s campaign last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin outperformed his Democratic rival in part by capitalizing on parents’ anger about school closings and racial allusions in the classroom. Earlier this year, the Texas Republican Party started backing candidates in nonpartisan school board elections.
DeSantis moved the situation forward. He made an appearance at the Moms for Liberty conference in July and began compiling a list of prospective school board candidates by asking them to complete a questionnaire and sign a pledge of support for him.
Additionally, DeSantis toured the state to promote his candidates. Charlie Crist, his Democratic rival, followed suit and endorsed a much smaller slate of candidates. Out of the seven candidates Crist backed, two incumbents prevailed, two challengers fell short, and three are moving on to the runoffs, including one against a DeSantis choice.
But DeSantis’ broader initiatives are what have brought him to the front of the cultural battles.
The “Stop WOKE Act” forbids teaching or business practices that assert that members of one ethnic group are inherently racist and forbids the idea that people’s status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by their race or gender. He also supported the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Later, a court determined that the “WOKE” statute violated the right to free expression and was thus illegal.
If the primary results are any indication, Florida voters appear to be responding favorably to DeSantis’ education policies.
One of the most heated contests included the election for a Miami-Dade school board seat between Perez and Monica Colucci, a candidate for DeSantis, with roughly $400,000 in donations to political parties and more throughout the campaign. In Miami, similar two-candidate school board contests in prior years attracted around half the funding.
Because of how well-liked DeSantis is among conservatives, Perez and Colucci both utilized images of him in their campaign literature. But Colucci, who served as Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez’s special assistant in the DeSantis administration from 2019 to 2020, received his sought support.
This summer, DeSantis’ political committee gave Nunez’ political committee a donation of $150,000, and Nunez’ political committee in turn gave more than $350,000 to a consulting company working for Colucci’s campaign.
Colucci and Nunez co-starred in commercials, events, and Spanish-language interviews. Colucci was interviewed by Nunez for a local TV show, during which Colucci spoke for less than a minute. Nunez claimed to have known Colucci for a long time.
The political advisor to Colucci first said that she would not be available for an interview until later in the year since she had left with her family after the election.
DeSantis’ push to appoint school board members who are supportive of his administration, according to Jennifer Jenkins, a progressive Democrat and member of the Brevard County school board who defeated a conservative incumbent in 2020, she believes is an attempt to advance his agenda and silence his critics.
Jenkins said that more devoted Republicans would vote for him if he won more seats.
Perez has already criticized DeSantis. She expressed her concern about the governor’s plans to expand scholarship programs that divert public school funding to private institutions to a newspaper less than two months after he took office because she considered the public education system to be “the equalizer” and “what has made the American system work.”
She told The Associated Press, “In certain things, you must serve the public in the best manner you know how, and that does not mean you need to agree with every single choice.”
When asked why the governor decided to participate in the Miami-Dade race, DeSantis campaign spokeswoman Lindsey Curnutte responded that the governor “made key endorsements in school board races and is supporting strong conservative candidates” who will uphold his agenda of student success and parental rights in education.
Perez, a registered Republican who supported DeSantis in 2018, said that while it has tainted her image of the governor, it hasn’t affected her opinion of the GOP as a whole.
Perez said she did not believe she could support Crist in November, however. She is unsure about her voting intentions.
Perez enjoys making jokes about having to move in with her Democratic adult children due to President Joe Biden’s economic policies. She continues to believe that the Republican Party is better in line with her overall worldview and attitude.
According to Perez, “I have to trust that there are conservatives who believe in a democracy and the free interchange of ideas.”