Trump looks to play catch-up to DeSantis on education in 2024 race

DAVENPORT, Iowa – Florida governor Ron DeSantis has shown that waging cultural warfare over education can pay off with voters, and now Mr Donald Trump is looking to get in on the action.

The former United States president, who is making another bid for the White House in 2024, is slated to deliver remarks on education policy at a campaign event in the key early voting state of Iowa on Monday.

Much of what Mr Trump is expected to outline appears to be cribbed from Mr DeSantis’ conservative playbook, including prohibitions on teaching so-called critical race theory and “gender ideology” while giving parents a greater say in their local schools by adopting a “Parental Bill of Rights”.

“It looks like he is trying to catch up on an issue that DeSantis got out ahead of him on,” said Mr David Kochel, a long-time Republican operative in Iowa who worked for the Jeb Bush presidential campaign.

The coronavirus pandemic gave rise to a host of hot-button issues surrounding education that have mobilised the Republican base in the years since Mr Trump left the White House. Conservative governors such as Mr DeSantis and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin zeroed in on what they viewed as overly progressive efforts in public schools, including around the teaching of the US history of racism and gender fluidity concepts.

The focus on cultural fights in education has continued as Republicans gear up for primary battles to come. Polls show the messages have galvanised conservatives and hold some potential appeal to independents and Democrats, depending on the particular policy involved.

Mr DeSantis was in Iowa on Friday, speaking at a pair of political events that appear to be laying groundwork for a presidential bid. His education agenda in Florida was a recurring theme in his remarks, and Mr DeSantis credited it as a reason that he convincingly won re-election last year.

“I think we have really done a great job of drawing a line in the sand to say the purpose of our schools is to educate kids not to indoctrinate kids,” he said to cheers from the crowd in Des Moines.

Mr DeSantis has asked the Florida legislature to expand a ban on teaching gender-identity concepts to eighth grade from third grade currently. He is working to dismantle diversity and equity offices in state universities and has engineered a conservative takeover of a small Florida college.

He recently worked with the national parents’ rights group, Moms for Liberty, to fashion a target list of liberal school board members to challenge in Florida.

“He has made a lot of decisions to make a lot of moms happy in this country,” said the group’s co-founder Tina Descovich.

Ms Descovich said the group, which has 115,000 members in 44 states, will not play a formal role in the 2024 race, perhaps denying Mr DeSantis a ready-made national army of activists.

That could leave an opening for Mr Trump, who made school choice a priority in his administration but lacks the track record on state-level education issues that Mr DeSantis and other governors have.