ROCHESTER, N.H. — Black students in Baltimore and Chicago "have a better chance of getting shot than getting a first-class education," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday as he campaigned for the presidency here.
DeSantis, who stands second to former President Donald Trump in the GOP primary field, has staked his political persona on fighting what he describes as the "woke" ideology of voters who support diversity initiatives in schools, government and the corporate world.
The comparison of gun violence and education is one DeSantis raised, with little fanfare, in his campaign launch on Twitter Spaces last week. But Thursday's remarks appear to be the first time he has made the assertion since he began visiting early primary states as a candidate.
He did so in criticizing the NAACP. Last month, the NAACP issued a national "travel advisory" warning Americans about visiting Florida in response to what it described as DeSantis' push to "erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools."
DeSantis defended himself Thursday, saying that Florida's crime rate is at "a 50-year low" and that Black students perform well in the state because of government support for private school vouchers. Ultimately, his framing amounts to a shorthand for the view that subsidies for "school choice" will improve educational outcomes for students of color and lead to lower gun violence.
"If you’re in Baltimore or Chicago, these kids have a better chance of getting shot than getting a first-class education," he said.
DeSantis, a Yale and Harvard law graduate who routinely denounces the Ivy League as an ivory tower of liberalism, didn’t say how he defines a first-class education. But his campaign cited a series of data points in support of his assertion in response to an inquiry from NBC News.
For Baltimore, the sole statistic was a federal Education Department report showing that only 4% of Black fourth graders were rated "proficient" in math in the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Another 30% were rated as having a "basic" achievement level.
For Chicago, the DeSantis camp cited a study showing that 7.5% of Black Chicagoans have been shot by age 40 and a report from a nonprofit pro-vouchers group that found that just 6% of Black Chicago students are proficient in math.
The mixed statistics don't add up — or amount to a solution for gun violence — said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP's national adviser for governance and policy.
"His comparison seems so convoluted," Shelton said in a television interview with NBC News. "We should talk about the real data and statistics. We know that, disproportionately in the state of Florida, African American children are more likely to get shot and killed. We know that in the state of Florida, African American children are more likely to be impacted by law enforcement and mistakes being made."
The population of New Hampshire, which will hold the first presidential primary — shortly after Republicans compete in the Iowa caucus next year — is about 93% white and about 2% African American, according to the latest census data.
Shelton said DeSantis is "obscuring the issue" by meshing education and gun violence in cities he doesn't govern and "not addressing" the problem.
"He wants to talk about Baltimore, and he wants to talk about Chicago," Shelton said. "There are issues that need to be addressed in those places, but he is by no means an expert on those places."
DeSantis is one of the nation's leading voices in favor of taxpayer subsidies for private schools, having signed a law that makes "school choice" universal in Florida. Critics said his move to expand eligibility to all students — the vouchers were previously available to low-income students and those with disabilities — would harm public schools, reduce accountability for performance and possibly lead to resegregation in Florida.