Former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump stealthily slipped into and out of Naples, Fla., Sunday night, Dec. 4.
“The event went off as planned and both President Trump and Melania attended and spoke,” Erika Donalds confirmed in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive.
The event’s location was kept secret to all but ticket holders and was closed to the press and public. The number of attendees has not been released.
The Trumps were in town to raise funds for “school choice” and to benefit Hurricane Ian victims. The event was mounted by the Classical Education Network, a private and charter school scholarship program in partnership with the Optima Foundation, an organization headed by Erika that helps set up and run private and charter schools.
The amount of funds raised has not been released. Tickets ranged from $30,000 for a family of four to $10,000 for individuals.
The event was heavily promoted by Erika and her husband Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) in the days leading up to it.
(Editor’s note: Because both Donalds were involved, this article will use first names on second reference rather than its usual practice of using just last names.)
“We’re just honored to have the former president and the former first lady join us so make sure you get your tickets and join us,” Byron said in a promotional video on Nov. 19.
Call for suspension
The event came a day after Trump called for suspension of the US Constitution.
On Saturday, Dec. 3, Trump posted on Truth Social, his social media platform: “So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party, do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION? A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great “Founders” did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!”
As of this writing, Byron had not commented on Trump’s call for suspension of the Constitution.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-10-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Associated Press he “vehemently” disagreed with and “absolutely” condemned the remarks, saying they should be a factor as Republicans decide who should lead their party in 2024.
“There is a political process that has to go forward before anybody is a frontrunner or anybody is even the candidate for the party,” he said. “I believe that people certainly are going to take into consideration a statement like this as they evaluate a candidate.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-At Large-Wy.) tweeted “No honest person can now deny that Trump is an enemy of the Constitution.”
“With the former President calling to throw aside the constitution, not a single conservative can legitimately support him, and not a single supporter can be called a conservative,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-6-Ill.) tweeted. “This is insane. Trump hates the constitution.”
Yesterday, Monday, Dec. 5, The Paradise Progressive reached out to Byron’s office for comment on Trump’s statement. Although the query was acknowledged, there was no answer.
In a bid to tighten his control of the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump yesterday, Dec. 13, formally endorsed Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) for re-election, a move slammed today by Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai.
“Donald Trump’s endorsement of my opponent can only lead to one thing— the continuation of the Trump administration,” stated Banyai in a message to supporters. “We will not stand for this any longer, and we need to keep our momentum going to show Byron Donalds and Donald Trump that we can defeat them.”
The endorsement was made from the Twitter account of the Trump War Room and stated that Donalds had been “a terrific advocate for the people of Florida and our Country” and had Trump’s “Complete and Total Endorsement.” (Capitalization as given.)
“Thank you, POTUS Trump, for your ENDORSEMENT and your unwavering support,” Donalds responded on Twitter. “Americans feel the pain of the America Last policies supported by the Biden-Harris administration and undoubtedly miss your America First agenda. I’ll always fight for the forgotten men and women of our nation.”
“I want to put our community first,” Banyai stated. “Byron Donalds is only interested in his allegiances to corporations, and harmful politicians like Trump. We cannot afford to have a representative who proudly posts pictures of himself with someone who has repeatedly damaged our country.”
Donalds and his wife Erika met with Trump during the latter’s nighttime visit to Naples on Dec. 3 and was photographed with Trump and his wife Melania.
The Donalds endorsement was one of a slew of endorsements issued by the Trump War Room yesterday. Trump is reaching down into state and local races to ensure a vise-like grip on the Party at all levels.
In addition to Donalds, Trump endorsed Angela Rigas who is running for Michigan state representative in the 86th District, Jacqueline “Jacky” Eubanks running for Michigan state representative in the 32nd District, and Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-13-Texas), who had served as the White House physician from 2013 to 2018 and Assistant to the President and Chief Medical Advisor, a newly-created position, in 2019.
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.)
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.
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.
“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
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.
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
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 Newsendorsed 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
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
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.