Last month, Fox News reported that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had set his sight on 14 school board members across the state whom he wanted to see defeated in the upcoming 2024 elections for not sufficiently upholding parental rights or protecting students from “woke ideologies.” The “target list” had come together after the governor reportedly met with Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, the state’s GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler, and two co-founders of the parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty.
The initial report didn’t name the school board members being targeted, but Tom Edwards, the last standing moderate member of the Sarasota County board, had a feeling he was going to make the cut. It turns out he was right. Ziegler, who recently took over as the Republican Party chair in Florida and is married to a Sarasota school board member, has called Edwards “perhaps the most ‘woke’ school board member in America,” according to the local SRQ Magazine.
Edwards, a retired businessman, was elected for a four-year school board seat in August 2020 after defeating incumbent Eric Robinson, a Republican campaign treasurer. He ran on a platform to safely reopen schools and protect public schools from privatization. “When I got elected as a school board member,” Edwards said, “I made a decision that I was going to use my platform to better my community and to provide better student outcomes.” The 2022 midterm elections saw three DeSantis-endorsed candidates win seats on the Sarasota school board, flipping it to a 4-1 conservative majority. Soon after, the new board moved to terminate the superintendent over Edwards’ sole opposition.
In a statement shared via email, Edwards said the governor “hit-listed those he sees as the few remaining ‘woke’ school board members” who do not “agree with his attempts to turn back the clock on public school education.” He went on: “Ironically, I appreciate the opportunity given to me by the governor…to be an upstander. I will never step away from what I believe is the right thing to do for Sarasota County’s students, teachers, parents, and citizens.” Mother Jones spoke with Edwards about the state of public education in Florida and what it’s like to be on the governor’s watchlist. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On running for the school board: I am an entrepreneur and I have owned two businesses. I owe my career to public education and I wanted to pay that forward and protect public education because it’s been under assault. It’s even worse now than when I started. My tagline, if I decide to re-run, will be the same: leadership with integrity. I think I’ve demonstrated my integrity to my community and even to the governor.
On partisanship: I am not a liberal, I am a moderate. I’m a registered Democrat but I ran in a nonpartisan race. And I take that to heart. I come from an era when bipartisan and compromise was the rule of the land, not partisanship and partisan politics. People who had different philosophies could sit down and try and figure out what is the middle ground. One of the reasons I ran for the school board was to open schools quickly, but safely. Half of my community was begging for me to put masks on because they were afraid that children would be bringing COVID home to elderly grandparents or whomever and the other half was caught in the political storm of anti-vax and anti-mask. When it comes to public health, I don’t see little Rs and little Ds, I look at how do I maintain safety for everyone.
On the conservative majority on the board: The running of our school board since [the election in November 2022], firing [superintendent] Dr. Asplen, allowing parents to walk their kids to class claiming it’s for academic excellence, those are all things from this extreme right-wing political activist agenda. To this day, I have yet to find one person that said it was a good idea to fire Dr. Asplen. Maybe those 10 people who come in and yell at us at the school board room thought it was a good idea. Everybody was against it and they did it anyhow. I proudly voted against it, and if I do run, and if I get reelected, it will be because of that.
On challenging books: My concern about book banning, which is a cornerstone of fascism, is that we already have a policy in place that if a parent is not happy with a book or a lesson plan, they merely have to speak to their teacher and the teacher will not allow the book to be checked out of the media center for that student. Or, if there’s a lesson plan, the teacher will substitute a different lesson for that student. So why is it that any parent feels that they have the right to speak on behalf of other parents’ rights for their child to read a book or have a lesson? That’s just pure politics and fascism. Plain and simple.
On becoming a target: He’s attacking me as a school board member because I disagree with his policies. I will tell you that the gauntlet was thrown down by being called the most woke school board member in America. If woke means developing programs that enhance the educational outcomes of our students and benefit my community, if woke means fostering critical thinking, if woke means creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, then I wear it as a badge of honor. That’s what I’ve done as a school board member and I hope those qualities never die here in the state of Florida. I’m just doing my job. This is a retaliation if you will, or a way to sort of knock me down a few pegs, but that kind of puts a little fuel in my tank. I’m happy to be the punching guy that gets the hard knocks. We have a zero-bullying policy at our schools. We don’t accept target lists and name calling from our students. Why do we accept it from our elected officials? We deserve better than that.
On Ron DeSantis: Frankly, it’s nothing more than bullying. It’s bullying he did to Disney. It’s bullying he’s doing to New College. It’s bullying he did to students wearing masks in his presence. It’s bullying he did to our LGBTQ+ students. And now he’s doing it to me. None of those people did anything wrong but disagree with him. He came, he campaigned, and he got control of the Sarasota County School Board politically in a nonpartisan race. He came in and bullied his way in and took control. Why is it that he needs to feel that he has to silence me too? And what does that say to the country if he becomes president? That fascist authoritarian bully behavior, is that how we can expect he’ll run the country? What’s happening here in Florida, my way or the highway or I intimidate you or I scare you is not the way that I think we want our children to understand how democracy works.
On the state of education in Florida: Just like what happened in Germany, the intimidation and the bullying is happening here in Sarasota and around the state of Florida. My community comes up to me all the time privately and tells me how proud they are that I’m on the board and that I am the voice of reason, and that the other four board members are extreme. Many of them will say “I’m a Republican and thank God you’re there.” The big losers of the culture wars here in Florida are the students and the teachers who are being legislated against and then persecuted.
On the need to fight back: I remember speaking to one of our Black students after the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. She said, “I look at a Black community in Buffalo where a white supremacist went in and killed 11 people in a grocery store and then three weeks later, 17 kids are killed in a classroom. How do you think as a Black student that makes me feel?” And yet, the cruelty that comes out of Ron DeSantis and his bills and the silencing and the suppression that he keeps just reinstating and reinstating and reinstating in such a heartless way…I’m baffled why more people aren’t on the streets. Because this is what happens. These are cornerstones of fascism: book banning; going after the marginalized. It’s just one thing after the other. We’re in that time period where the bullying that the governor is doing is working and if I don’t feel as though the community can get behind me and can speak up vocally, that would be a consideration of mine (in re-running in August 2024.) We all have to get out there, regardless of our political affiliation, and fight for democracy.