Endorsing real education at the Collier and Lee county school boards—and rebuking anti-Semitism

Candidates for Collier County School Board speak at a forum at the Destiny Church in Naples, Fla. on May 21. (Photo: Author)

Aug. 10, 2022

In Southwest Florida school board elections are supposed to be non-partisan—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t divisive.

That has never been truer than this year. School board elections in Southwest Florida and around the country have become battlefields even if the candidates don’t have party affiliations after their names.

Two world views, two philosophies, two complete universes are in conflict. One is the product of a secular, scientific Enlightenment and the other is based on religion, dogma and doctrine.

What’s really at stake in these school board elections is which worldview will mold the next generation of Florida’s youth. Will they go into the future equipped with the intellectual skills and knowledge to succeed in a complex, diverse, technological world? Or will they be shaped by an emotionally comforting but academically deficient cocoon from which they never emerge?

It’s against this backdrop that Southwest Florida voters should carefully choose which candidates will guide the region’s education.

In both counties early in-person voting begins Saturday, Aug. 13 (the last day to request a mail-in ballot) and runs until Saturday, Aug. 20. Primary Election Day is Tuesday, Aug. 23. Mail-in ballots are already arriving. If candidates receive over 50 percent of the vote in the primary they will be elected without having to run again in the general election.

Collier County

In Collier County the choice is absolutely clear: all incumbents should be returned to office.

That means electing Jory Westberry in District 1, Jen Mitchell in District 3 and Roy Terry in District 5.

Jory Westberry (Photo: CCPS)

This is not even a contest: these three educators have experience, credentials and a proven commitment to the education and the well-being of Collier County’s students. Their past efforts earned the Collier County School District an “A” rating from the Florida Department of Education for the fifth year in a row.

Jen Mitchell (Photo: Author)

None of the challengers have anything close to their qualifications to sit on the school board.

No challenger has shown an interest in or familiarity with the nuts and bolts of school system management, budgeting and decisionmaking, which is really what keeps a school district functioning.

Roy Terry (Photo: CCPS)

There’s no point in belaboring this. If Collier County students are going to be competently educated, Westberry, Mitchell and Terry need to be re-elected.

Lee County

There are similar stakes in Lee County’s school board race, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has reached down to support and fund his own favored candidates.

The candidates endorsed by the Lee County Democratic Party merit the support of Lee County voters.

They are:

  • District 1: Kathy Fanny
  • District 4: Debbie Jordan
  • District 5: Gwynetta Gittens
  • District 6: Tia Collin

On a disturbing note

One particular campaign incident merits special attention.

In the Collier County School Board race for the 5th District, candidate Tim Moshier’s campaign manager, Katiepaige Richards, posted an overtly anti-Semitic 7-second video on social media.

Katiepaige Richards, campaign manager for Tim Moshier, in her social media video.

With the text “j€w$ remixing the part where they’re not using p0rn0gr@phÿ as mind control” over the image, Richards mimes being a disc jockey scratching records while dancing. Her careful use of symbols in the text to avoid alerting community standards algorithms indicates that this was a very deliberate production and not something done casually.

Her reference is to a new anti-Semitic canard among the extreme right that, as Richards put it in a different tweet: “…Zionists use pornography as mind control for the population… for white people specifically… no one has yet to prove me wrong.” And in another post she stated that she’s “not a fan of zionists, degeneracy, vaccines or globalists.”

When asked about his campaign manager’s video at the opening of a new Republican Party headquarters, candidate Moshier told Naples Daily News reporter Rachel Heimann Mercader that “I don’t have a problem with it.”

Moshier has no educational credentials whatsoever. Before this he was just unqualified for a school board seat; his answer and indifference to bigotry make clear he’s unfit for any public office at all.

It’s just one more indication of the stakes and sensibilities in this year’s school board races—in Southwest Florida and across the country.

Liberty lives in light

©2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Candidates clash over classroom priorities, religious beliefs in Collier County School Board forum

Candidates for Collier County School Board at the Destiny Church in Naples, Fla. on May 21. (Photo: Author)

May 24, 2022 by David Silverberg

The differences between experienced, secular incumbents seeking re-election to the Collier County Board of Education and religiously-driven challengers were on full display this past Saturday, May 21, at a candidate forum held by the Christian Conservative Coalition at the Destiny Church in Naples.

The forum featured nine candidates for School Board seats for districts 1, 3 and 5, which are up for election this year in a non-partisan race. If candidates succeed in winning 50 percent plus one majorities in the Aug. 23 primary they will be elected, otherwise the election will be decided on Nov. 8.

About 100 people attended the two-hour forum, which featured candidates making opening statements then answering prepared questions from the moderator, Chad Taylor. Each candidate was given one minute to answer the question after being picked in random order.

In District 1 Jory Westberry is the incumbent board member. Opposing her are challengers Kimberly Boobyer, a golf teacher and coach, and Jerry Rutherford, a retired life insurance salesman and painting contractor.

In District 3, incumbent Jen Mitchell, the board’s chair, is up against challengers Kelly Lichter, a former teacher and charter school founder, and Jana Greer, a businesswoman.

In District 5, incumbent Roy Terry is facing challengers Tim Moshier, a former trucking company executive, and Ana Turino, an academic mentor.

The three incumbents all have extensive experience either on the board or in the education system. Terry has 44 years in the Collier County school system as a teacher, principal and coach; Mitchell noted her 25 years in Naples and her record since joining the board in 2018 of bringing up Collier County school standards; and Westberry cited her experience as a teacher, administrator and parent and grandparent of students in the county schools.

Opening questions

School boards across the country have gone from relatively quiet and obscure local government agencies to intense ideological battlegrounds in the aftermath of the pandemic, mask mandates, the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Steve Bannon, former strategic advisor to Presdient Donald Trump has stated that Trump believers will take back the country “village by village” at the local level, including school boards.

Collier County is no exception to this effort.

This forum emphasized religious differences. The Coalition’s promotion of the event promised “we will be asking the questions no one else has the courage to ask” and with three districts in play, “we have the POWER to gain the majority and change the liberal policies indoctrinating our children.” 

According to its website, the Coalition is an organization that seeks to mobilize Christian leaders and believers for political “projects, campaigns, and organizations.” It states: “We are about enlisting new conservative Christian ‘boots on the ground’ –  then training, motivating, and informing these believers in Christ via our email newsletter, special events, and monthly meetings,” (The organization’s Facebook page has 1,261 followers.)

The candidates knew they were playing to a religious audience, which may have intensified the zealotry of their responses, especially among the challengers, while incumbents answered from experience and knowledge of the system.

Given its religious setting and ideological hosting organization, the forum’s first three questions—and numerous questions thereafter—were heavily weighted toward emotional, hot-button issues.

When asked the first question, “Should biological males be allowed to compete in female sports?” all the candidates called for the separation of men and women in sports. However, given her experience, Mitchell pointed out that males and females have to be separated to comply with state law and Collier County is no exception.

Asked the second question, “What is your stance on abortion and how would it guide your school policies?” Mitchell noted that she was the result of her mother’s decision to keep her when abortion was an option, so she had a personal connection to the question. However, she also noted that in school, “It’s important to distinguish between information and teaching” and abortion is not part of the curriculum. Parents can opt their children out of instruction when sexual matters are discussed. Westberry also pointed out the school does not have a policy to teach abortion and Terry added that the only students who get the reproductive curricula are in eighth grade.

However, the challengers vied with each other to demonstrate the depth of their opposition to abortion. Boobyer cited her Catholic faith and said she wanted all abortion abolished. Turino called for abstinence and said she would not even “take puppies from dogs.” Greer said that abortion “absolutely should not be allowed” and all references to it in teaching materials should be removed. Lichter said she would ensure that there was no promotion of abortion or references to Planned Parenthood. Rutherford said that if a girl gets pregnant the school should inform the parents and there should be no teaching of abortion.

On the third question: “How should American exceptionalism and Marxism be taught in schools?” Mitchell pointed out that while existing textbooks emphasized American exceptionalism, the stories of Marxism and Fascism are also taught “because how else will students know just how exceptional we are?” Westberry agreed that American exceptionalism should be promoted and that when the histories of Marxism and other ideologies are taught, it “be taught at the appropriate grade level.” Terry, who noted his father’s service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, thought that students should understand the nature of Marxism.

The challengers were more emphatic. Turino wanted American exceptionalism taught “at kindergarten.” Marxism and communism, she argued, shouldn’t be taught before high school and then the failure of countries adhering to those ideologies should be emphasized. Rutherford too wanted Marxism taught as a failure. Moshier accused the current school administration of pushing Marxism. Boobyer not only wanted Marxism taught as evil along with the Holocaust but she made a point of calling for the teaching of flag etiquette. Greer wanted to make sure students did not “believe that socialism or Marxism is the way to go.”

The 38 percent debate

To the degree that the forum became a debate, it focused on a charge by Boobyer that the existing school board is ignoring 38 percent of Collier County students whom she said were failing math and reading.

Mitchell responded that that was simply “not true.” Rather, 38 percent were not at grade level. “To say they are failing is an insult to our students and teachers,” she said, pointedly noting that “we need to be respectful of one another.” Rather, she explained, the school system had achieved a record high 92.7 percent graduation rate, maintained an “A” district status for the last four years, and outperformed state standards in all 21 areas subject to tests, all this coming under her tenure.

Westberry also took issue with Boobyer’s 38 percent charge. “We have 91 different dialects spoken in school,” she said. “Some of the students come without any English at all. That we have only 38 percent [below grade level] is a miracle and a testament to what [teachers] do.”

Another brief point of contention came when Moshier, citing his experience running a trucking business and cutting back in bad times, said that he would cut the education budget “and put more money back in our pockets.” To which Terry replied: “Cut the budget? Tell us what you’re going to cut out” and listed a variety of schoolroom and extracurricular activities that while vital, might go under the knife in a broad and indiscriminate slicing.

Rules and rebellion

One question that went to the heart of the election race was: “Are you willing to take a stand for what is right even if the rules say otherwise?”

Unsurprisingly, all candidates said they would stand up for whatever is right and cited times when they stood up for principle.

However, the answers also revealed the secular-religious divide between them.

Terry noted many times when he had confronted the superintendent and said he could not support a particular activity. “My whole thought is if it’s not good for the students we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said. Mitchell said she had taken a stand opposing use of sexual materials unless parents approved. When it came to masking during the worst of the pandemic the board had followed health department directives, she pointed out, saying, “I uphold the Constitution and follow the law.” Westberry said: “I have proven I am willing to take a stand on things.”

But a number of challengers said they would follow a different law.

“I will always stand up for just laws under God’s law,” said Boobyer. Rutherford said he would stand for the law “unless it’s against God’s law. God’s law comes first.” Greer said she would “always stand up for the Biblical world view.”

Commentary: Realism versus religion

The next candidate forum for school board is on June 21, hosted by Naples Better Government, League of Women Voters, Collier Citizens Council, and Greater Naples Leadership. (Details at the end of this article.)

This event will be held in a non-religious setting and will likely revolve around less religiously driven questions.

It was clear from Saturday’s forum, however, that there is a strong religious element driving the challengers to the current school board. Particular examples of this were candidates Boobyer, Greer, Turino and Rutherford.

However, while decrying “indoctrination” of students with values of logical reasoning, free inquiry and critical thinking, they would seek to impose their own religious views on the school system if elected—in other words, true indoctrination in the sense of inculcating a doctrine.

But that raises the question of which doctrine: Catholic? Protestant? Evangelical? Imposing religious beliefs conjures the specter of doctrinal conflict. When they created the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the nation’s founders could look back on Europe’s previous 200 years of religious wars, massacres and persecutions. They wanted no part of that, which is why the first clause of the First Amendment prohibits establishment of a state religion and allows free exercise of faith. It’s what made America truly exceptional.

No question asked of the candidates at the forum put this in better perspective than: “Are you willing to take a stand for what is right even if the rules say otherwise?”

Of course any school board has to follow the law and adhere to rationally and properly formulated rules. The presumption behind the question is that there will be a difference between “right” and “rules.” It’s a false assumption. Following the law and obeying the rules is what’s right and that’s what should be expected of school board members. Candidates can follow whatever they think is God’s law in their private lives but school board members have to adhere to state law in their official decisionmaking.

In a way it was a good thing that this was such a religiously-oriented forum because it put the religion issue on the table in the school board elections.

The fact is that the vast majority of school board work is much more mundane than this forum would suggest: managing contracts, evaluating contractors, approving purchases, dealing with personnel, budgeting, infrastructure maintenance, and overseeing the superintendent’s office are really the nuts and bolts of what a school board does and Collier County is no exception.

These are requirements that favor steadiness, experience and managerial ability rather than zealotry, faith and fervor.

A straw poll held at the end of the forum showed this audience’s preferences. They favored Rutherford in District 1, Lichter in District 3, and Moshier in District 5.

However, there are 91 days to the primary election and 168 days to the general election. A lot can happen in that time.

*  *  *

The next Collier County School Board candidate forum will take place on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm at the NABOR Conference Center, 1455 Pine Ridge Road, Naples. It is being hosted by Naples Better Government in partnership with the League of Women Voters, Collier Citizens Council, and Greater Naples Leadership. It will be broadcast on Collier Television CTV, Comcast 97, and Summit 98.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Follow-up: Whatever happened to Rep. Bob Rommel’s classroom Big Brother bill?

State Rep. Bob Rommel of Naples. (Image: Tampa Bay 10 News)

March 25, 2022 by David Silverberg

Florida teachers can rest assured that they will not have to wear microphones and be subject to video surveillance in their classrooms—at least for the rest of this year.

That’s because the Video Cameras in Public School Classrooms, House Bill (HB) 1055, in the Florida legislature died at the end of the legislative session.

It was not given a hearing or considered for passage during the three-month legislative session.

The bill was introduced on Dec. 28 last year by state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples). It required that Florida public school teachers wear microphones and be watched by video cameras in their classrooms.

Following its first reading on Jan. 11, the bill was referred to two subcommittees of the Florida House Education and Employment Committee: the early learning and elementary education subcommittee and the secondary education and career development subcommittee. It was also referred to the House Appropriations preK-12 appropriations subcommittee.

In a Feb. 11 message to constituents, Rommel stated:

“On any given school day in the Sunshine State, over 2.5 million kids attend our public schools. That doesn’t even include kids in private school or homeschool.

“We have more school children than 15 other states have people. Our children must have a world-class education and we must take every precaution to keep them safe. Safe from bullying, safe from abuse, and safe from teachers with an ideological agenda.

“The key is to make our classrooms transparent and accountable. That’s why I filed legislation this year to put security cameras in every classroom in Florida.

“While the radical Left wants to take control of our kids, conservatives want to keep parents in charge. In Florida, we protect parents’ rights and we don’t have an income tax. Let’s keep it that way.”

The Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee was the lead subcommittee to consider it. When it didn’t consider the bill, HB 1055 was withdrawn from consideration on Saturday, March 12, after the official end of the legislative session and then officially declared dead on Monday, March 14.

During its short life span HB 1055 came in for blistering criticism from teachers’ unions and education experts.

“Did you ever read 1984?  Big Brother is not the way to encourage learners to grapple with difficult issues, learn critical thinking and become active informed, voting citizens of our democracy.  What you propose can only limit thinking, discussion and learning for students who will become the leaders of the future,” wrote Madelon Stewart, an education activist, in a Jan. 31 op-ed in the Fort Myers News-Press.

“You may try to justify this undemocratic law as an  attempt to root out ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ however, you are, in fact, creating what you purport to fear. You say you eschew government overreach, but common sense tells us that what you propose will do nothing positive and that, in fact, you are planning to control learning, freedom of speech and thought,” she wrote.

“I believe there are some people in the public arena who are trying to create a mistrust, not just of teachers, but of public education in general,” Michelle Dillon, president of the St. Johns Education Association told NewsJax 4 in Jacksonville when the bill was introduced. “It’s just noise, it’s a distraction from the real issues of staff shortages and the lack of meaningful pay. We need to trust our educators again.”

“It’s just a lot of energy wasted on something that is wrongheaded, destructive to a profession that’s already in low morale,” Vicki Kidwell, president of the Clay County Education Association, told the same TV station. “We [the teachers] are made out to be villains and we don’t see the energy being put into fixing the problems that we have.”

The Paradise Progressive reached out to Rommel to ask if he plans to re-file this bill next year and if he would make any changes to it. To date no answer has been received.

New district lines

Rommel has announced that he will be running for the Florida House again this year. However, he will be facing a different constituency due to new House district lines.

The existing Florida House 106th District. (Map: Florida House)

Rommel’s current 106th district stretches along the Gulf coast from Bonita Beach Road in Lee County to Naples to Everglades City and Chokaloskee.

The new Florida House 80th and 81st districts. (Map: Florida House)

However, under new district maps passed by the Florida House, the 106th District has been altered and split.

The northern new district, the 80th, runs along the coast from the Lee County-Charlotte County line in the north to Immokalee Rd. in Collier County in the south. It includes Boca Grande, Pine Island and Sanibel Island.

The new southern district, the 81st, runs along the coast from Immokalee Rd. to Marco Island and includes Naples.

This more closely conforms to Rommel’s existing district and he has already stated that he will be running there for both the Aug. 23rd primary and Nov. 8th general election.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus until April 11.

Naples Rep. Bob Rommel pushes Big Brother in Florida classrooms–Updated

Bill would put teachers under video surveillance

State Rep. Bob Rommel of Naples. (Image: Tampa Bay 10 News)

Jan. 14, 2022 by David Silverberg

A bill to place video cameras in Florida classrooms to put teachers under full-time surveillance, introduced by state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples), had its initial reading on Tuesday, Jan. 11, the first day of the Florida legislative session.

House Bill (HB) 1055, Video Cameras in Public School Classrooms, “Authorizes school districts to adopt policy to place video cameras in public school classrooms; provides requirements for such policy; provides for viewing video recordings; provides DOE [Department of Education], school district, school, & certain employee responsibilities.” (A link to the full text of the bill is at the conclusion of this article.)

If passed in this legislative session the bill would take effect on July 1.

The bill has been referred to the Education and Employment Committee and its early learning and elementary education and secondary education and career development subcommittees, and the House Appropriations PreK-12 subcommittee.

Under the bill’s provisions a teacher would have to wear a microphone while teaching. Cameras would be installed in the front of classrooms. If a recording is interrupted in any way a written explanation must be filed. School principals would be the officials responsible for holding and administering the recordings and the bill specifies the circumstances under which recordings can be shared or deleted.

Rommel, who represents a legislative district running along coastal Collier County from Bonita Beach Road to Naples to Everglades City and Chokaloskee, was quoted in a television news interview saying, “Children are our most precious assets in the state of Florida and we should make sure we do everything we can to protect them and teachers too. There are incidents, a teacher/student incident, and we want to make sure we protect everyone in the classroom.”

He pointed out that “It’s not live-streamed. So, the teacher’s privacy and how they teach their class is not going to be infringed on.”

(Editor’s note: The Paradise Progressive reached out to Rommel’s office requesting a telephone interview on this subject. As of this writing the request has neither been answered nor acknowledged.)

HB 1055 immediately raised questions from the Florida Education Association (FEA), the largest teachers’ union in the state.

In a statement, Andrew Spar, FEA president, stated: “We have questions about this bill regarding parental rights and other issues. Could law enforcement or the district use the video to investigate a situation dealing with a student without parental knowledge? Can the video be used by law enforcement if a student harms another student or a school employee? Can a teacher use the recording to show that they did not get assistance in a timely manner after calling the office? Can it be used as evidence to show how effective a teacher is in the classroom?”

There is also nothing in the bill discussing the cost of the surveillance or funding for implementation.

A variety of interested parties are already lining up to lobby on the bill including the Lake County School Board, Hillsborough County Schools, and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, although none had issued public statements on their positions as of this writing.

Yesterday, Jan. 13, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, weighed in on Twitter, stating: “omg no. Florida will not be a surveillance state!!!”

Commentary: Big Brother in the classroom

As though teachers are not under sufficient pressure now, between COVID, mask mandates, remote learning, school shootings, physical threats, anti-public education sentiment, charter school competition, and underfunding as well as low pay, low benefits and general lack of respect, under HB 1055 they would now be subject to constant surveillance in their classrooms.

“Morale is not high in education with teachers and this is just going to look to teachers as another way to catch them,” Angie Snow, an elementary educator in Hillsborough County, said in an interview broadcast on Tampa Bay 10 News. “An allegation is all it takes for a parent to get access and then there’s critiquing and criticizing of everything else.”

Indeed, the presumption behind HB 1055 appears to be that teachers are guilty of something and only the right video footage is needed to catch them.

With that in mind, HB 1055 has been carefully crafted to avoid appearing as part of the ideological assault on educators and school boards.

Although Rommel has espoused conservative, highly ideological views in all his campaigns and previous representation in Tallahassee, he’s couching this bill over concern about “incidents” in classrooms. These are defined in the bill as “an event, a circumstance, an act, or an omission that results in the abuse or neglect of a student” by another student or school employee. There have indeed been incidents of violence and altercations and even shootings in schools like Parkland.

But unlike police body cameras that routinely record footage of potentially violent, dangerous and evidentiary events, classrooms are—or should be—peaceful places. For the most part, what goes on in the vast majority of Florida classrooms the vast majority of the time is teaching and learning.

The extremely rare physical threat or altercation simply doesn’t justify the expense, the difficulty, and the complications—not to mention the simple indignity—of putting microphones on every teacher and installing video cameras in every classroom. If there’s an instance of violence and a security officer has to be called, his or her body camera should provide a sufficient record of any incident.

The real purpose of this legislation is to surveil teachers to punish them—or dangle the threat of punishment—for any heretical ideas they might impart in the classroom, with any party at all playing the role of accuser, inquisitor—and potentially, plaintiff.

HB 1055 fits in nicely with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed Anti-WOKE [Wrongs to our Kids and Employees] Act, giving anyone the ability to sue teachers for teaching critical race theory. Citing video evidence, no matter how far-fetched or flimsy, plaintiffs can head to court on any pretext to financially destroy underpaid teachers even if the plaintiff doesn’t win the case.

From a practical standpoint, there’s simply no need, on a daily, ongoing basis, to record every moment in every classroom—not to mention the Orwellian implications of constant monitoring.

While Rommel is at pains to note that camera footage would not be live-streamed and would have to be released by principals, the fact is that this bill is clearly driven by extreme opponents of classroom COVID precautions and content of which they disapprove—i.e., “wokeness” and critical race theory.

Indeed, in Naples, Rommel’s home district, the only praise for the bill has come from Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, the farmer and grocer who in August on Facebook called for the “take down” of teachers’ unions by “force.” (Oakes subsequently stated in an interview with The Paradise Progressive that he meant only by legal means.)

“If these teachers have nothing to hide they shouldn’t mind!” he stated on Facebook on Jan. 1.

This is a bad idea and a bad bill that should not get past the subcommittee stage.

*  *  *

To register an opinion on HB 1055, contact the following legislators (e-mails can be sent through their linked pages):

Education Committee

Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee

Secondary Education and Career Development Subcommittee

PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee

The full text of HB 1055 can be read here.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!



COVID vaxx for kids sets stage for renewed struggle at school boards and in classrooms

Alfie Oakes: Teachers should be “taken down” by “force”

A March 10, 2021 meeting of the Collier County School Board is disrupted by anti-mask protesters. (Image: Fox4 News)

Oct. 26, 2021 by David Silverberg

Tensions surrounding school board decisions, masking and curriculum, already at a high pitch, are likely to become even more pronounced in the weeks ahead as new child COVID vaccines become available and are mandated for school use.

The possibility of violence and past intimidation and harassment of school officials has prompted federal law enforcement intervention, leading to state and local pushback.

Southwest Florida is already in the grip of these stresses and challenges. Passions have run high at local school board meetings over the past year, with disruptions, disorderly conduct and protests.

To date there has not been any school-related violence in Southwest Florida. However, there has been at least one local, politically-motivated overt call to use “force” against teachers.

On Aug. 16 Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, an extreme right-wing grower and grocer, posted on Facebook: “These corrupt teachers unions are the enemy of our country and our citizens! We need to take them down by force!! ALL enemies foreign and domestic !!! Time for a revolution!”

On Aug. 20 Oakes told a conservative gathering in Naples that he had a sufficient number of guns to arm all his 3,200 employees. While no illegal actions have been publicly apparent to date, his call to “take [teachers] down by force” could inspire other school opponents to use violence.

The simmering summer

After a summer of rising tension and threats directed at elected school board members, along with a spike in the COVID-19 Delta variant, on Sept. 29, Viola Garcia, president of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), and Chip Slaven, its interim executive director, sent a five-page letter to President Joe Biden, detailing the danger.

“America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) respectfully asks for federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation,” it stated.

“Local school board members want to hear from their communities on important issues and that must be at the forefront of good school board governance and promotion of free speech,” it continued. “However, there also must be safeguards in place to protect public schools and dedicated education leaders as they do their jobs.”

The letter provided extensive examples of harassment and threats in its body and footnotes.

On Oct. 4 Attorney General Merrick Garland responded with a public memorandum.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” he wrote. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.” (The full text of the memo is at the end of this article.)

Based on the danger to teachers and school board members, Garland ordered agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and US attorneys to begin meeting with law enforcement agencies at all levels to discuss strategies for dealing with the danger. “These sessions will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response by law enforcement,” he stated.  

Garland’s memorandum was interpreted by Republicans, grass roots conservatives and the right-wing media as an assault on parents’ rights and free speech, potentially labeling parents “domestic terrorists.”

This was the line of attack opened by Republican members of Congress when Garland testified before the House Judiciary Committee this past Thursday, Oct. 21. The hearing’s official topic was the investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection but it examined a broad range of subjects.

Garland defended his memo.

“Parents have been complaining about the education of their children and about school boards since there were such things as school boards and public education,” he told the lawmakers. “This is totally protected by the First Amendment. True threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. Those are the things we are worried about here. Those are the only things we are worried about here. We are not investigating peaceful protests or parent involvement in school board meetings. There is no precedent for doing that and we would never do that. We are only concerned about violence and threats of violence against school administrators, teachers, staff.”

Republicans on the panel, however, used the opportunity to unleash their grievances and attack the memo. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-4-Ohio), the ranking member on the panel, delivered a vociferous opening statement accusing Garland and the FBI of selectively targeting parents, while ignoring Republican priorities like violent crime and border security.

Garland, said Jordan, had opened “a snitch line on parents, started five days after a left wing political organization asked for it. If that’s not political, I don’t know what is.”

(Southwest Florida Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), who sits on the panel, used his question to ask Garland if the Department of Justice was pursuing environmental protesters at the Department of the Interior with the same vigor as the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Garland said he was unfamiliar with the incident Steube was mentioning.)

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared that the state would not cooperate with the FBI.

“We’re not going to be cooperating with any types of federal investigations into parents,” he said at a press conference in Titusville last Wednesday, Oct. 20. “And we’ll do whatever we can to thwart such investigations.” He accused Garland and President Joe Biden of pulling a political stunt to “intimidate parents” and “squelch dissent” and called a memo a “slap in the face” to Florida and other local law enforcement officers.

“They don’t need to have their hand held by federal agents over basic law enforcement,” he said. “At the state level, we will be not facilitating or participating in any of the things that were outlined in that memo, because it’s just not appropriate to do that.”

Trouble in paradise

In an essay published on Oct. 20 in The Washington Post: “I’m a Florida school board member. This is how protesters come after me,” Brevard County school board member Jennifer Jenkins related how protesters opposing school curriculum demonstrated at her house, how a state representative gave out her private cell phone number and encouraged harassing phone calls, and how her lawn was vandalized, among other forms of threats.

She wrote: “I ran for the school board last year because I was concerned about issues such as teacher pay, student equity and, oh yeah, the coronavirus. As a progressive in a red county, I expected to be a target of conservatives; I did not expect to be called a Nazi and a pedophile and to be subjected to months of threats, harassment and intimidation.” 

On the west coast of Florida, specifically in Lee and Collier counties, there has not been the same level of threat against school boards, teachers or staff. Nonetheless, in the spring, school board meetings were the scene of intense debate and at times disruption.

Issues included mask mandates, curriculum, school textbooks and especially the teaching of critical race theory, an educational concept that emphasizes the importance of racial relations in American history.

In March the Collier County school board chambers had to be cleared when anti-mask parents insisted on removing their masks in defiance of board rules.

In June, the Collier County school board was again the scene of disruptions as the board discussed school textbook purchases and anti-curriculum attendees disrupted proceedings.

Alfie Oakes harangues the Collier County School Board before being escorted out by a security officer. (Image: WINK News)

During that meeting on June 7 Alfie Oakes was escorted out of the chambers after he refused to respect the rules governing discussion while accusing the board of planning to purchase $6 million worth of what he called “books and materials that are laden with critical race theory and other strictly liberal viewpoints.”

The pandemic and the issues of masking in school led to protests and demonstrations in the spring. However, with the COVID Delta variant outbreak in the summer and especially as schools prepared to open in August, passions reached a new pitch.

In August there were shoving incidents outside the Lee County School Board headquarters before a meeting to discuss a school mask mandate. Although the Lee County Board imposed a 30-day mandate for September, a mid-month court ruling forced the school system to provide exemptions.

It was also in August, in the midst of the Delta spike, that Alfie Oakes issued his call for the use of “force” against teachers.

In October the Lee County school board discussed an armed guardian program, training armed teachers and school security officers to prevent school shootings from any source.

Commentary: From angry August to nasty November

School-related tensions are likely to rise substantially in the coming weeks when COVID vaccines are fully approved and distributed for children from ages 5 to 12.

Schools have mandated a variety of vaccines for decades but given the level of resistance and politicization surrounding the COVID vaccine, quite an eruption can be expected when schools try to require the latest protection.

School board members, teachers and staff will need extensive physical protection and they should start preparing now—even if they don’t impose mandates.

In this context, Attorney General Garland’s memo directing federal, state and local coordination and strategizing is a reasonable, lawful, and sensible effort to protect elected school board officials and staff from attacks of all kinds. As Garland himself stated, and as the memo itself states, it is only directed against unlawful threats. It does not infringe on parents’ rights, of free speech or anything else, and it does not designate them as “domestic terrorists.”

In fact, Garland would be remiss if he did not take such actions.

Of course, Florida, led by an ambitious and determinedly Trumpist governor has already established itself as an outlier. DeSantis has shown himself driven to fight all COVID protections of all sorts, at all levels and for all ages. He picked a pliant Surgeon General in Joseph Ladapo, who simply provides any and all justifications DeSantis requires for his desired electoral results. His administration has concealed the real statistics for COVID, especially the Delta variant, to minimize the toll his policies have taken on Floridians.

At the grassroots level the anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-science, anti-curriculum—in fact, anti-learning—movement seems aimed more at imposing its own version of the indoctrination it claims to decry than the education it purports to uphold. It is aided and abetted in this by the right-wing media outrage machine, which is twisting any science-based, or law enforcement measure into an assault on parental authority and individual freedom.

In a broader sense what the anti-learning, anti-protection activists seem intent on doing is creating a parallel universe in classrooms where COVID either doesn’t exist or can be ignored, where American history is literally whitewashed and where comfortable delusions—like the Big Lie—can be taught as fact and take hold for generations to come.

If it succeeds, Southwest Florida will not be spared its results any more than other corner of the country.

In the days ahead, those who do love democracy, learning and wish to protect the lives of schoolchildren will have to show themselves more committed, more mobilized and more dedicated than those who seek to put their lives and learning at risk.


The next regular meeting of the Lee County School Board is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 2 at 6:00 pm at the Lee County Public Education Center, 2855 Colonial Blvd., Fort Myers, Fla. 

The next regular meeting of the Collier County School Board is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 4:00 pm at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail. Naples, Fla.


Full text of the 1-page Oct. 4 memorandum from Attorney General Merrick Garland to law enforcement agencies.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Byron Donalds and the war against America’s schools

Collier County public school teachers call for better pay and state support at a Naples demonstration on March 4, 2019, in solidarity with teachers throughout Florida. Maintaining funding for public schools in Florida and around the nation has been a key issue in the face of competition from charter and non-public schools. (Photo: author)

Sept. 16, 2020 by David Silverberg

If you’ve enjoyed Betsy DeVos, you’re going to love Byron and Erika Donalds.

Betsy DeVos, of course, is the US Secretary of Education. Byron is state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) and Republican candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District of Florida, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Erika, his wife and a public figure in her own right, is a former Collier County School Board member and served as the board’s vice chair, and is a relentless advocate for charter schools and non-public education.

Of DeVos, the National Education Association has stated, “As President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos has made it her mission to dismantle public education. She promotes the privatization of public schools through vouchers, continually calls for deep cuts to federal funding, rolls back protections for vulnerable children, and completely disregards their safety and the safety of educators during a global pandemic.”

Erika has praised DeVos in the past and like her has pushed for the privatization of education and promoted the charter school industry through lobbying, legislation and consulting as well as investing in specific charter schools. Byron during his time in the Florida legislature introduced a number of measures that would have reduced the authority of local school boards and harmed public education.

Whether labeled as such or not, both have pursued a DeVosian agenda.

Now, by running for Congress, Byron is seeking a national platform where he will have the influence to implement DeVos’ agenda whether DeVos is present or not. And Erika will have a similar national platform to lobby for the changes she has long sought in Florida—changes fiercely resisted by elected school boards and teachers, as expressed through their associations.

The education of America’s schoolchildren may not be high on the campaign agendas of Byron Donalds and his opponent Democrat Cindy Banyai, although Banyai has a well-thought out education agenda. Remarkably, though, Byron doesn’t even mention education as an issue on his campaign website.

However, given Byron and Erika’s pasts, education is the issue where they have been the most active, the most prominent and in many ways the most damaging to public schooling.

What are the education issues in this race and how did they evolve to this point? What are Byron and Erika’s backgrounds and records? Just how much influence on public education policy would Byron have if he were elected to Congress? And what is the potential impact of this local race on the future of America’s public education?

These are the questions this article will address.

(Terminology note: Advocates of non-public schools prefer to call their movement “school choice” in the sense that it gives parents a choice of schools. However, in this author’s view, the real dividing line between the types of institutions at issue is best described as “public” or “non-public” since they include charters, which can be quasi-public. Therefore, this article will refer to “non-public schools” to include all forms of schools outside the public school system.)

(Terminology note: Because we are dealing with two Donalds here, we will be using first names instead of the usual practice of using just the last name on second reference.)

A brief history of public and non-public schooling

From the very beginning of the United States, founders realized that an active citizenry engaged in running the country required universal literacy and an educated population.

Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, in advocating for a 1784 bill for universal education in Virginia, noted that “The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness.” (Emphasis ours.)

While universal public education was not enacted in the United States immediately on its founding, the idea of equally accessible, publicly-funded education gained ground throughout US history as states implemented public school systems and universal education over time.

Private schools were initially religious schools, primarily Catholic, and predate the American Revolution. Their acceptance by mainstream America has waxed and waned. In addition to parochial schools, there were also elite institutions to educate the sons of the upper classes. However, all these private schools were self-funded and never impinged on public education. (For a full account, see: “What is private school? History of private schools in the United States.”)

With public schools being criticized for a spectrum of shortcomings in recent years, some parents have turned to a variety of non-public alternatives like home schooling. Private schools were also boosted when public school systems were racially integrated in the 1960s and some white parents in the South responded by starting their own private schools to maintain segregation.

Beginning in 1974 professor Ray Budde proposed “charter” schools that would be free of public school restrictions on curriculum, allowing teachers to innovate, while being open to all students but funded at a lower level than public schools. Initially considered small schools-within-schools and aimed to encourage innovation and attention to students with particular needs, the movement grew and spread. Charters went from a small experiment to for-profit academies independent of existing school systems.

Increasingly, the government at both the national and state levels—and both Republicans and Democrats—provided grants and other forms of support to charter schools and other forms of private schooling. But critics are now sounding the alarm that this support in fact takes money and other support away from public schools.

No one has put the divide between public and non-public schools into greater relief than the present Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. An heiress with virtually no training or knowledge of educational issues whose family built its fortune on the privatization movement, she is a forceful advocate for non-public schools and has taken actions harmful to public education to the point where critics feared she was trying to end public education altogether.

The Florida situation

Florida opened its first charter school in 1996. The movement caught hold and expanded rapidly, with support from the Republican-dominated legislature. As in the rest of the country, the charters went from schools-within-schools, to non-profit schools to for-profit schools.

“The original intent of sharing innovative methods to others in the public-school system was replaced by permitting private corporations to siphon off tax dollars appropriated for education,” wrote Paula Dockery, a former Republican state legislator, in a February, 2020 article: “Florida charter schools: from innovators to pariahs.”

According to Dockery, there are 658 charter schools in Florida, of which about half are for-profit.

Their expansion notwithstanding, Florida charter schools have an abysmal business record. Since 1998, 409 have closed, mostly for financial reasons, and Florida ranks second in the nation for charter school failures. In 2014 the Naples Daily News did a four-part series called “Shuttered: Florida’s Failed Charter Schools.”

In 2018, Integrity Florida, a non-profit, anti-corruption research institute, released a thorough and comprehensive study of the impact of charter schools on public education in Florida called The Hidden Costs of Charter School Choice: Privatizing Public Education in Florida. It found that charter schools failed to deliver the promised educational innovation, were badly mismanaged due to lax regulation and that local school boards had been unable to manage charter schools.  What is more, the movement led to a very well-funded lobbying industry and conflicts of interest as state lawmakers invested and ran charter schools while serving in the legislature.

Despite all these known problems, charters are receiving more state money than public schools for facilities: $150 million compared to $50 million for the public schools that educate 90 percent of Florida’s students, according to Dockery.

The record of charter schools in Southwest Florida accords with the state experience. Lee County has 18 charter schools in operation. However, the Lee County School District records 10 charter schools that have closed and eight proposed schools that failed to open. Collier County currently has three charter schools but doesn’t post past closures.

There is also an ideological aspect to the Florida privatization movement, as best demonstrated by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a grassroots organization working and advocating for non-public educational alternatives.

“We work to unleash the learning potential of every one of Florida’s 2.8 million students so they can become productive and fulfilled citizens in our constitutional republic,” states the organization’s website.

However, a more frank explanation of the organization’s views was given at a meeting at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples on May 30, 2018. Then, the Florida Citizens’ Alliance hosted Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) who sat on the House Education Committee.

A 2018 Florida Citizens’ Alliance brochure blaming education for the youth vote in the 2016 election.

“You look at what’s going on in our schools with the indoctrination indoctrinating our kids on socialism,” said Keith Flaugh, the organization’s managing director. “They are indoctrinating our kids against religious values. It’s kind of a mixed metaphor; it’s a kind of mixed messaging. They are very secularism-oriented in what they’re teaching but they’re also teaching Islam. So it’s kind of a dual-edged sword. They are denigrating our constitutional values.”

Referring to a brochure that showed the numerous states where 18 to 24 year olds voted Democratic in the 2016 election, Flaugh said: “When you look at this map, that’s your First Amendment, that’s your Second Amendment, that’s your Constitution; because these kids, the vast majority of them are being indoctrinated to think that government is their nanny. And if we don’t stop that, we won’t have a constitutional republic. So that’s what we spend our time on.”

At this juncture between the public and non-public worlds stand Byron and Erika Donalds.

Enter the Donalds

The Donalds family with Byron and Erika, center, and their sons Damon, Darin, and Mason. (Photo: Byron Donalds for Congress campaign.)

Born in 1978, Byron Donalds grew up in Brooklyn, New York, raised with his two sisters by a single mother who stressed the importance of education.

He attended parochial religious schools, an all-black elementary school, a private Quaker middle school called Brooklyn Friends, and Nazareth Regional High School, a predominately black Catholic school, according to a 2012 Florida Weekly profile.  He enrolled in a five-year Master of Business Administration program at Florida A&M University in 1996 and transferred to Florida State University (FSU) in his third year, graduating in 2002 with dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and marketing. He began working as a financial advisor at Wells Fargo Advisors.

In 1997 at the age of 19 he was arrested for drug possession, an arrest he has acknowledged in his campaign media. The case was put into pre-trial diversion and Leon County court records show he paid a $150 fee.

He and Erika met at FSU, where they both belonged to the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity. She received her degree in accounting.

Byron ran for Congress in the 2012 Republican primary but was defeated by Trey Radel. Though he filed campaign finance reports to run for Congress in 2014 after Radel’s cocaine possession conviction, he never filed as a candidate.

In 2016 he ran for Florida House Representative in District 80, which encompasses eastern Collier County including the town of Immokalee and Hendry County.

During that race he was accused by his primary opponent, Joe Davidow, of lying about his criminal record in an application to serve on the board of trustees of Florida Southwestern State College (then Edison College). Byron’s application was initially held up by concerns among Florida senators but was ultimately approved.

“Davidow said Donalds falsified information on his confirmation questionnaire, responding ‘no’ to a question about whether he had ever been ‘arrested, charged, or indicted’ of federal, state, or local law. By not disclosing the incidents, Davidow said Donalds lied under oath about his record,” according to Florida Politics. Davidow even created a website called Lyin’ Byron (since deleted).

Byron said he’d been thoroughly examined by the governor and Senate and still approved for the board.

He won the seat.

Erika worked as a certified public accountant and starting in 2002 was chief compliance officer and partner at DGHM, an investment management firm.

The Donalds’ first child attended public school. However, when their second child had difficulties at school, Erika decided to put him in a private school. She subsequently discovered plans to open a charter school where he could attend tuition-free.

Realizing that there was a demand for non-public schooling, she helped found Parents ROCK (Parents Right of Choice for Kids), a non-profit advocacy group for non-public schooling in Collier County.

In 2014 she ran and won a seat on the Collier County School Board, where she continued her fight for charter schools.

“I ran to be a parent voice,” she told Florida Politics reporter Jacob Ogles, “and in hopes traditional public schools would become more responsive to parent feedback and students’ needs. My vision was (that) students would not need to leave public schools.”

However, when the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) resisted state vouchers and sought to limit the number of charter schools in the state, she began a battle to enlarge the scope and nature of charter schools. She fought the requirement that members of school boards join the FSBA and helped found a rival organization, the Florida Coalition of School Board Members and served as its first president.

Her advocacy made her a leading voice for the non-public schooling movement in Florida and led to clashes with fellow members of the Collier County School Board where she came to serve as vice chair.

The big year

Byron Donalds addresses a Trump campaign rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 23, 2016. (Image: C-Span)

2016 was a big year for the nation, education and the Donalds—all of them.

Byron endorsed candidate Donald Trump and appeared with him at a rally on the Collier County Fairgrounds.

When Donald Trump won he appointed Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, an appointment so controversial given her lack of knowledge and credentials that it took the intervention of Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote in the Senate to confirm her.

In Collier County, Erika celebrated the appointment. “It’s an encouraging step in the right direction for our country,” she told the Naples Daily News. “I like seeing an outsider in the position who will evaluate educational programs on their merit alone.”

Nor was she concerned by DeVos’ lack of public school experience: “I don’t have experience in the classroom either, and I’m certainly capable of serving in a governance role when it comes to overseeing a large operation,” she said.

Both Byron and Erika got to work promoting non-public schools.

In the legislature, Donalds was named to the Education Committee, among his other committee assignments, where he rose to vice chair of the Pre-K Appropriations Subcommittee.

Among the bills he introduced were a number favoring non-public schools or weakening public education. One, House Bill 7061, would have dropped a state requirement that teacher applicants take a “general knowledge” examination determining their fundamental grasp of the world. Byron argued that dropping the requirement would save teachers from losing their jobs. However, a practicing teacher argued it would open the door to unqualified or ignorant teachers.

Another required that textbooks “provide a non-inflammatory, objective, and balanced viewpoint on issues,” be “free of pornography” and be age-appropriate—a bill drafted by Keith Flaugh of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance.

“Since some people find the teaching of evolution and climate change ‘inflammatory’ and ‘unbalanced’ it would allow anyone who pays tax on a cup of coffee while visiting Florida to advocate teaching creationism and that climate change isn’t caused by humans,” argued Brandon Haught, a high school teacher and founding member of Florida Citizens for Science.

(Throughout his House tenure Donalds also consistently received an “F” rating from the People First Report Card, a project of Progress Florida, a progressive non-profit advocacy organization, for voting against measures that would help Floridians.)  

With Byron in the legislature, Erika was very active on the non-public school front.

In November 2017 she founded the Optima Foundation, where she currently serves as chief executive officer. A non-profit 501c3 that takes tax deductible contributions, the foundation provides nuts and bolts business advice to start-up charter schools or, as the Foundation puts it, provides: “a model of efficiency, effectiveness, and results-driven processes” to charter schools.

The same year she was appointed to Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission and was named chair of its Local Government Committee. It was in that capacity that she proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida state Constitution.

Amendment 8 proposed three measures. It would have established eight-year term limits for local school board members. It would have also taken the authority to regulate charter schools from locally-elected school boards and given it to state authorities. Lastly, it would have promoted “civic literacy” in public education, requiring the legislature to pass laws to “ensure that students enrolled in public education understand and are prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional republic”—a “constitutional republic” being the conservative movement’s phrase for its vision of the United States.

The amendment sparked immediate and vehement opposition.

“Suddenly, the Legislature could allow any person or group or corporation, public or private, to set up charter schools or the like. And those schools would be free of oversight by the school board. This is so misleading you have to wonder if the deception was deliberate,” editorialized the Palm Beach Post

“If Amendment 8 remains on the ballot, there is no way that voters will realize that a yes vote could allow unaccountable political appointees or even private organizations to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county,” argued Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters.

The Polk County School Board was particularly outraged by the proposal, unanimously passing a resolution stating that the amendment “is not necessary, is not fair, is not desirable, and is not clearly understandable.”

So threatening was Amendment 8 that the League of Women Voters, working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued to stop it, saying it was misleading and violated a rule requiring that amendments deal only with single subjects.

On Aug. 20, 2018 Judge John Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County ruled that Amendment 8 “fails to inform voters of the chief purpose and effect of this proposal” and could not appear on the ballot in November. The state appealed the ruling but it was confirmed by the State Supreme Court on Sept. 7.

Amendment 8 never appeared on the 2018 ballot.

In addition to their legislative and advocacy activities, in 2019 Byron and Erika were involved in a bitter and convoluted fight over ownership and management of Mason Classical Academy, a charter school in Naples. One of the founders, Kelly Lichter, who had crossed swords with Erika before, alleged that Erika, the Optima Foundation and other parties were engaged in a hostile takeover of the school. Erika and other parties for their part alleged mismanagement and improprieties in the school’s management and proceeded to found the Naples Classical Academy, scheduled to open this month.

In January 2019 Erika founded yet another organization to promote and lobby for non-public schools, the School Choice Movement, which pursued the objectives of Amendment 8 in the Florida state legislature.

The Donalds’ involvement in the non-public school movement, including their commercial activities opening charter schools, has proven politically problematic for Byron.

In 2018 when Byron was running for re-election to the Florida House in District 80 he met with the Naples Daily News editorial board along with all the other candidates running that year.

Of all the many candidates running, the Naples Daily News endorsed only one Democrat that year; Byron’s opponent, microbiologist Jennifer Boddicker. In addition to praising her strengths and abilities, the board had interesting things to say about Byron:

“There’s a common denominator in much of the education policy Boddicker correctly cited as problematic. Her Nov. 6 Republican opponent, incumbent Byron Donalds, often had a hand in it.

“On multiple occasions, Donalds advocated for school choice legislation, raising questions because of his direct family connections to opening a Collier charter school and his wife now planning another on Florida’s east coast.

“Voters should elect state lawmakers to advance the interests of their constituents at large, not a specific subgroup or personal passions.

“Donalds was graded F-minus in open government policy by the First Amendment Foundation. He crafted a terrible bill that would have gutted the state’s signature Sunshine Law by allowing two officials of the same elected board to have private conversations about issues. Then, in his recent meeting with our editorial board, he again defended it by pointing to two examples — both involving his Collier School Board member wife.”

Naples Daily News

The battle for the future of America’s children

Teachers call for state support for education in Tallahassee in January 2020 at the start of the legislative session. (Photo: Florida Education Association via Twitter)

The issue of public and non-public education has not been a front-burner issue in this year’s political campaigns on any level; there’s so much more going on. But it is in the background.

In 2016, President Donald Trump campaigned in favor of non-public schools, saying he would fix failing inner city schools and calling the issue “the great civil rights issue of our time.” He proposed the idea of a $20 billion school voucher program—which faced Republican opposition and went nowhere in Congress once he was in office.

Nonetheless, Trump continued his verbal support for non-public education and appointed Betsy DeVos education secretary to pursue it.

When former Vice President Joe Biden declared his candidacy in May 2019, his first policy proposal affirmed his support for public schools.

“Educators deserve a partner in the White House,” said his initial statement. “With President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, they’ll get two. Dr. Biden has worked as an educator for more than 30 years. She and Joe understand that, for educators, their profession isn’t just what they do; it is who they are.”

The initial Biden plan called for tripling Title I funding, which goes toward school districts with a high proportion of children from low-income backgrounds. He promised to overhaul the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help public school teachers pay off their student loan debt. He called for doubling the number of school psychologists, guidance counselors, nurses and other health professionals in schools; ensuring federal funding for children with disabilities; and supported universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. To keep schoolchildren safe, he called for a ban on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

He also came out against public funding of non-public schools.

In the May 2019 town hall with the American Federation of Teachers where he unveiled his education proposals, Biden said that while some charter schools succeed, federal money should not be spent on private, for-profit schools.

When it comes to vouchers and other such schemes, he said, “The bottom line is, it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

Biden has since expanded his education proposals, calling for increasing teacher pay; investing in schools; ensuring that all students have a path to success and are educated equally regardless of location, income, race or disability.

In Southwest Florida, Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai has detailed education proposals, starting with a vision that: “All children in the US have access to high-quality education, preschool through post-secondary, leading to a prepared, qualified, and advanced workforce filled with successful individuals.”

This is followed by eight very specific ideas for improving American education. When she’s elected she has a plan to introduce a “Workforce of Tomorrow” bill to implement them and find the funding mechanisms to make it happen.

“”I’m a big proponent of public schools because I understand their value. My kids go to public school,” Banyai told The Paradise Progressive. “I want the best for them and all our kids. We must invest more in public schools and not allow those public dollars to go into the hands of private corporations through private charter schools and vouchers. Teachers need good salaries that make it possible to live sustainably in our community. During the COVID-19 pandemic teachers have become front-line workers and deserve recognition and respect. Our public school teachers and students can count on my help in Congress.”

Astonishingly, for all the work he’s done on education issues and his involvement over the years, as of this writing, of eight policy positions he’s taken, Byron doesn’t mention education at all on his campaign website.


On Sept. 14, The Paradise Progressive e-mailed the Byron Donalds campaign the following questions:

1. In summary, what is your position on public education in the United States?

2. As a member of Congress, what specific actions do you intend to take regarding US education policy?

3. Do you approve of the policies and actions of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?

The same day, The Paradise Progressive separately e-mailed the following questions to Erika Donalds:

1. If Mr. Donalds is elected and goes to Washington, will you go with him or stay in Florida?

2. Do you anticipate lobbying Congress regarding school choice and do you anticipate registering as a lobbyist?

3. If Mr. Donalds is elected, do you intend to divest yourself of all assets, financial interests, and investments in school or education-related businesses, entities or clients whether for profit or non-profit?

4. Can you summarize your view of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ policies, agenda and actions regarding public education to date?

5. How would you characterize your view of the state of public education today?

As of this posting, no response has been received from either party.


The impact of one congressman

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a visit to Southwest Florida schools arranged by Rep. Francis Rooney in November, 2017. (Image: WINK News)

If anyone doesn’t believe that an individual member of Congress can have an impact on national education policy, one need only examine the first term of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), a man whose entire education, from kindergarten to post-graduate school, was spent in the parochial, Catholic schools of the Georgetown Jesuit school system.

When he first arrived in Washington, Rooney sat on the House Education Committee.

Rooney revealed the real nature of his education policy activities when he addressed the Florida Citizens Alliance program at the Alamo in 2018.

“We’re in the fight of our lives,” he said, endorsing the Alliance’s critique of public education. “It’s the education system which is brainwashing these kids, it’s Hollywood, it’s videogames and no one wants to talk about the real drivers.”

In Congress he tried to eliminate what he called “40 stupid little programs that have crept into the Higher Education Act since 1965” through what was called the PROSPER Act (Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform) Act. A Republican bill, it never went anywhere.

The bill tried to cut $2 billion out of education, including programs that rewarded students who went into public service after college. As Rooney characterized it, the PROSPER Act “eliminated this freebee if you go into public service, which is driving the liberals nuts. You know, you get a special loan if you commit to go into public service after college. It’s like paying people to fight against us”—meaning that service to the United States made a person an enemy of conservatives.

Rooney also brought DeVos to Southwest Florida twice in 2017 to tour the area’s schools, once after Hurricane Irma and once to visit local high schools and colleges.

The thrust of Rooney’s activities was to reshape American education in the DeVos mold. And what was that mold? As he put it at the Alamo: “We don’t need to become a nation of philosophers, okay? We need to become a nation of doers”—meaning that there was virtually no need to support education that wasn’t technical or trade-oriented.   

Rooney and his fellow educational conservatives were unable to enact their program despite a completely Republican Congress with a president who agreed with their views. But their efforts to cut, shortchange and eliminate programs that benefit students regardless of their stations in life or income level were a warning of just how much damage a single congressman hostile to public education can do.

Analysis: The Donalds and the war on America’s schools

In their choice of who to send to Congress to represent them, Southwest Florida voters, parents and teachers should be aware of what they would get with Byron Donalds.

Donalds has not demonstrated any support for public education during his legislative career or in his political activities. On the contrary, he and his wife Erika have done all they possibly could to advance non-public education and personally profit from it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with non-public education. Parents and students who want religious schooling or alternative schooling are welcome to have it. But that educational alternative should not come at the expense of public schools or the teachers who serve them, the taxpayers who fund them, the employees who run them, the parents who rely on them, or the students who learn from them.

The charter school movement, of which they are advocates, is neither benign nor cost-free to public schools and taxpayers. From an experimental, innovative educational alternative, the charter school movement has metastasized into a for-profit gold rush, complete with shoddy products, questionable financing and unreliable outcomes.

In particular, Erika Donalds’ efforts have been directed at reducing or diluting the authority of local, elected school boards and weakening the public education infrastructure in the state of Florida and doing this sometimes in seemingly deceptive ways, as demonstrated by Amendment 8.

If Byron Donalds goes to Congress, those efforts will have a national platform and the potential authority of the United States Congress.

Indeed, if Donald Trump is re-elected, it may genuinely mean the end of the public school system in this country. The federal government may de-fund public education entirely and the Department of Education may be disestablished. If the department still exists, Betsy DeVos may have another four years in office. However, should she decide not to serve in a second Trump administration, it is conceivable that Erika could be a candidate to succeed her as Secretary of Education.

On the other hand, it is very possible that if Donald Trump is defeated and Betsy DeVos is no longer Education Secretary but Byron is elected, Erika Donalds will become a leading advocate on the national stage for the DeVos approach to public education, with Byron providing the legislative heft to advance the agenda.

Of course, if Cindy Banyai is elected along with Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic ticket, all these questions become moot.

It is worth remembering the importance of public education for the continuation of democracy. To make the American experiment work, it had to rely on an educated, literate, informed electorate. Public education provided the basic knowledge of citizenship and history to everyone; it was a widely accepted government service that taxpayers maintained and it provided the common language and frame of reference for civic engagement.

The fragmentation and destruction of public education risks breaking and dividing a literate, engaged citizenry. Instead of a common education that treats all students as equally as possible, it risks lapsing into the situation of past societies where an educated, literate class of masters ruled over an ignorant, uneducated class of servants.

There is another risk: that the alternative, non-public educational alternative will teach a form of government that is ideologically anti-democratic and inimical to the continuation of this government in its current, constitutional form.

This may seem like a great deal to hang on the outcome of a local congressional race in an obscure corner of Florida but, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane, of such small motions are great events made.

As is abundantly clear, on the outcome of the 2020 election hangs the question of whether America will remain a democracy or fall into dictatorship. And on the future of its education system hangs the question of whether a weedlike cult of personality will implant its roots into the future or whether democracy will bloom in all the seasons to come.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg

A busy week in Congress: ending the national emergency, gun violence and education policy

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March 1, 2019 by David Silverberg

While the nation was transfixed by the open House Oversight Committee hearing of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer (who also testified at two closed hearings), work done elsewhere more directly affected Southwest Florida.

Ending the state of emergency

As reported earlier this week, on Tuesday, Feb. 26, the House of Representatives voted 245 to 182 to terminate Trump’s state of emergency on the southern border. The legislation is now in the Senate.

In a startling break with his Republican colleagues and the president, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) for the first time in this session, voted with the Democratic majority and against the president’s wishes.

He joined 12 other Republicans in rejecting the state of emergency declaration, made on Feb. 15. Prior to that vote, Rooney had voted 100 percent with the president’s agenda in the 116th Congress.

To see more coverage of the state of emergency vote, see: US House votes to terminate state of emergency; Rooney breaks with party to oppose Trump.

Opposing gun restrictions

This week was a particularly active week in addressing gun violence in the House as it considered two sweeping measures. The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 (House Resolution 8), would require background checks on all firearms sales. The Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019 (HR 1112) would lengthen the waiting period for a gun purchase from three days to ten.

Rooney voted against both measures, which nonetheless passed the chamber with votes of 240 to 190 and 228 to 198 respectively.

In past appearances, Rooney has staunchly maintained that gun restrictions were unconstitutional, although in a May 30, 2018 appearance at The Alamo gun range and store in Naples, he said that while he could go so far as to support a limit on the size of gun magazines, “I just think we have to think real careful it doesn‘t become a slippery slope.  You know, maybe you say if you use a magazine over a certain size you got to do it at a place like The Alamo or some kind of secure environment,” he said at the time.

However, he added, “…the thing that scares me is that a weapons ban, the last weapons ban, empowered the anti-Second Amendment people so much that they are using it against us now.”

In voting against HR 8 Rooney stated: “While we must continue to take action to end gun violence, what we do must actually be effective. Last year, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law, the Fix NICS Act, which penalizes federal and state authorities that fail to report relevant information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).”

In voting against HR 1112, Rooney argued that it did not address issues raised by the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding gun safety.

Supporting Betsy DeVos

This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos introduced a new initiative to promote private schools. The initiative would provide a tax credit for donations made to private school scholarships, called Education Freedom Scholarships (EFS).

In Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the Senate and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-1-Ala.) in the House introduced Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act (not yet numbered at the time of this writing) to promote the program. Rooney signed on as a co-sponsor.

According to the Department of Education statement accompanying its unveiling, the “EFS will be funded through taxpayers’ voluntary contributions to state‐identified Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). Those taxpayers will then receive a non‐refundable, dollar‐for‐dollar federal tax credit. EFS will not create a new federal education program but instead will allow states to decide whether to participate and how to select eligible students, education providers, and allowable education expenses.”

DeVos hastened to assure the public that the program would not hurt public education. “The policy would not rely on any funds currently allocated to public education, nor would it create a new federal education program. Participation would be voluntary for students, schools, and states,” she announced in a statement.

Despite these assurances, Democrats were quick to blast the proposal as another Trump administration effort to undermine public education.

“House Democrats will not waste time on proposals that undermine public education. We’re focused on reversing our chronic underfunding of public schools so that all students – regardless of their background – can learn in schools that are healthy, safe, and provide a quality education,” stated Rep. Bobby Scott (D-3-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Surprisingly, criticism also came from conservative institutions like The Heritage Foundation. Lindsey Burke, director of the Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, and Adam Michel, a senior policy analyst in the Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, warned that the proposal could reverse the nation’s school choice gains and recent tax policy reforms.

“It’s wonderful that the Administration wants to advance school choice but a nationwide federal tax-credit scholarship program is the wrong way to do it,” they wrote in a Heritage Foundation statement. “This could open the door for further education regulations down the road that neutralize the advantages of private education as well as impede future tax reform efforts.”

Rooney, whose education was entirely private, parochial and religious, has long been critical of public education for “driving an agenda of secularism, materialism and willingness to sacrifice principles for material possessions,” as he put it in his Alamo appearance.

Rooney has accompanied DeVos on several trips to Southwest Florida to tour schools here.

The initiative and its accompanying legislation chiefly benefits wealthy donors who can afford to make large financial contributions to private schools, providing them with another tax break. The scholarships benefit private and for-profit schools that chiefly cater to wealthy children.

(It is worth noting the warning made in the book Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault Newman, who served in the early Trump administration as liaison to the African-American community, about Betsy DeVos: “Her plan, in a nutshell, is to replace public education with for-profit schools”—all of them, the entire system, not just a few. “In each cabinet meeting, I was seated in the row near her. I can tell you, after a year of sitting in those meetings and observing her, that she’s woefully inadequate and not equipped for her job. She is just as horrible as you suspect she is. … She does not care about your children. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.”)

Coal lobbyist confirmed as EPA administrator

In the Senate, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, was confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The vote on Thursday, Feb. 28, was 52 to 47 with both of Florida’s Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, voting in favor of Wheeler’s confirmation.

Liberty lives in light