Proponents and opponents to teaching Critical Race Theory are in attendance as the Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban it from being taught in schools, in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Nov. 16, 2021.
Robert Gauthier—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
April 19, 2022 4:25 PM EDT

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It’s no secret that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is laying the groundwork for a presidential run. For liberal parents in other states dusting off their pink hats, they’d be better served keeping an eye on the textbooks their local school boards are considering in the next few years. Because, in many cases, DeSantis and his allies in Florida could be effectively picking the reading lists from afar.

You see, in 20 states, officials in the state capitol pick what will be taught in local classrooms, down to the words on page, in exchange for fully funded book orders. That gives states with huge caches of students tremendous sway in what options are available in other states. Publishers are businesses; they chase the biggest markets. The publishers don’t have incentives to create Red State textbooks and Blue State textbooks. States and districts with huge checks can seek specific line edits while, with no disrespect for the roughly 70,000 students in D.C. public schools, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee cannot compel massive publishers to do the same on a matching scale. That’s why DeSantis is set to be the de facto arbiter of what millions of students—even outside of Florida—are learning. It is all in the name of keeping the kids safe from wokeness masquerading as math.

For years, publishers catered to the two giants, California and Texas. The New York Times in 2020 published an eye-opening and detailed comparison of one publisher’s telling of the American story—by the same authors—and found two very different versions of the country’s history based on in what state a student took social studies. For instance, The Times found a publisher inserted into a discussion of the Harlem Renaissance an observation that critics “dismissed the quality of the literature produced” for Texas audiences. In earlier Texas versions dating to 2014, Moses was listed among the Founding Fathers’ influences.

It was long assumed that publishers would adapt to chase California’s 6.5 million students and Texas’ 5.5 million. (Nationally, 51 million students are enrolled in K-12 public schools.) Florida has long had on the books an official list of approved textbooks for its 2.9 million students, but it was easy enough for publishers to make minor tweaks and repurpose the Texas books for Florida audiences. After all, sympathy for the NRA translates easily from Houston to Pensacola, as The New York Times’ Gail Collins found in a separate project.

This behind-the-scenes effort at indoctrinating students into their states’ mythologies is now pushing into public view, with DeSantis crowing about his fight to shape young minds. Even Texas’ conservative textbook would be insufficient for DeSantis. The figure who is seen as a strong contender in 2024—especially if former President Donald Trump ends up sitting out the race—gathered reporters on Monday to promote the fact that his state education department rejected 42 of 132 textbooks proposed for the next school year.

Their sin? The math texts seemed, in the estimation of Florida’s reviewers, to teach critical race theory and social-emotional learning, both considered verboten for conservatives who see wokeness creeping into their kids’ classrooms and, in the words of Puck, Woke War III looming. So almost half of the math texts were rejected, with little explanation for how word problems and geometry theorems can be used for indoctrination.

DeSantis is betting his political future—or at least the chapter where he seeks the GOP nomination—on the far right’s obsession with government overreach and its threat to kids. (TIME’s Olivia B. Waxman wrote a cover story for the magazine last year that unpacked why some activists are so deeply—and wrongly—worried that a graduate-level approach to policy analysis is teaching white kids to hate themselves under the guise of critical race theory.) The Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s political editor branded DeSantis “the chief of the woke police.” During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, he emerged as the primary foil to Anthony Fauci, all but declaring coronavirus over in Florida. DeSantis signed a state proclamation declaring a female Florida swimmer the “rightful winner” of the NCAA championship after she came up short to an opponent who is transgender. ​​He has signed into law a measure that explicitly bans schools from teaching students in third grade and younger anything about sexual orientation or gender identity. TIME’s Madeleine Carlisle has the details on the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law here.

And DeSantis is poised in coming weeks to sign into law the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which makes it illegal for companies or schools to conduct trainings that could make people uncomfortable about the actions of their ancestors. It’s a sweeping measure that would protect the feelings of white people—and one that other states are considering as the latest chapter of the culture wars spreads from coast to coast. But these moves have helped DeSantis emerge as a favorite 2024 candidate for the Fox News crowd.

DeSantis is following in the footsteps of other White House hopefuls and test-driving a national agenda at the statehouse. One of DeSantis’ predecessors, Jeb Bush, used his time in Tallahassee to emerge as a champion of an education overhaul on a national stage. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry oversaw the state’s strong economic growth, fueled by low taxes and dramatically basement-level regulation, which then enticed major companies to relocate to his state. And Mitt Romney’s turn as Massachusetts’ Governor made him into a leader on health care, an accomplishment that would haunt him as his policy’s central plank would help build Obamacare.

DeSantis’ style of courting grievance might be the right way to win a primary in a Republican Party that has, at least since 2015, decided to preach from the gospel of Trumpism. But his efforts miss this fact: Americans writ large don’t really care about this in the same way as kitchen-table issues like taxes and healthcare. Polling shows most Americans support teaching all history and admit that this country has historically favored white men. Republicans’ losses in 2018 and Trump’s defeat in 2020 should give the GOP some concerns. DeSantis has the fundamentals of a skilled political effort, but those alone can’t get him into the White House. After all, Jeb Bush, Perry, and Romney all resonated with a loud corner of the Republican Party, but didn’t electrify a national audience. But in the meantime, DeSantis could end up picking kids’ math worksheets from Santa Fe to Charlotte—power that might tee up his national ambitions.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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