Trump Elevates Conservative Education ‘Warrior’

In early 2021, Representative Byron Donalds, Republican of Florida, and his wife Erika took the stage at an event hosted by the Truth & Liberty Coalition, a group that pushes to inject Christianity into public schools and other institutions and whose leader has described homosexuality as the work of Satan.

The couple was warmly welcomed as allies in the cause. Ms. Donalds was chosen to open a charter school in Florida. As a state lawmaker, Mr. Donalds had created a school voucher program that, in the words of one speaker, gave children “a Biblical worldview education.”

Mr. Donalds addressed the group with characteristic humility. He’s just a “poor kid from Brooklyn,” he said, who made amends by doggedly pursuing his interests.

He urged the group to do the same: “Be brave.”

Mr. Donalds’ career is a testament to his advice. His interests — in overhauling public education, evangelical Christianity and the election of Donald J. Trump — have fueled a meteoric political rise. A conniving congressman in only his second term, 45-year-old Donalds has quickly become a prominent surrogate for Trump’s presidential campaign and a fixture in the conservative media, defending the former president seriously and on message. .

Mr. Trump has taken notice. He has personally introduced Mr. Donald as “the next governor of Florida,” and has spoken to advisers about the congressman as a potential running mate.

The national attention is less notable than that in Florida, where the Donalds have spent years building a name — and a business — for themselves in the state’s red-hot battle over schools.

Mr. and Mrs. Donalds were early activists in an increasingly influential network seeking to transform traditional public education—in Florida and beyond. Long before the recent battles over book bans and critical race theory, these efforts cast public schools as failed laboratories for liberal ideas and pushed to divert public education dollars to charter or private schools.

Mr. Donalds supported legislation that would give outside groups a greater voice in school curricula, years before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sparked a national debate by making it easier for groups to remove books from school libraries and limit education about sexuality and gender.

The couple has close ties to leading forces in those debates, including Moms for Liberty, Hillsdale College and the Florida Citizens Alliance, which has pushed for the removal of books it deems inappropriate from schools. Both Mr. and Mrs. Donalds have made comments disparaging homosexuality.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Mr Donalds described heterosexual relationships as “the natural order that moves society forward.” In a 2017 tweet, Ms. Donalds wrote: “Homosexuality is a sin, just like any other sexual sin, and we sinners all need forgiveness and grace for our shortcomings.”

The couple’s work was as much advocacy as income. While Mr. Donalds pushed legislation to expand access to charter schools and voucher programs, Mrs. Donalds began building a business and a nonprofit that profited from that expansion.

“Byron and Erika have been known in Florida for years as fighters in the fight for quality education for all children,” said Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a conservative education group that started in Florida but has now emerged. as a political power broker. “That reputation is spreading nationally.”

As Mr. Trump campaigns, he has embraced the new education policy, suggesting that public schools have been overrun by “pink-haired communists” and promising to close the Department of Education if he is re-elected. And he has surrounded himself with like-minded supporters, like the Donaldses.

Mr. Trump enthusiastically welcomed the congressman to a fundraising event at Mar-a-Lago this month, saying that Mr. Donalds had “something very special political” and that he was a favorite among his club’s wealthy clientele. “We don’t have poor people, and that’s the one thing I don’t like about Mar-a-Lago, you know — I like diversity,” the former president said, asking Mr. Donalds, who is black, introduced.

He has also publicly praised Ms. Donalds, who now serves on the advisory board of the Heritage Foundation, prompting speculation that she might be considered for a future board position.

She knows “more about education than anybody I know,” he said last fall at the Florida Freedom Summit. “So stay with me,” Trump added, nodding to her in the audience. “Stay with me, OK?”

Mr. Donalds’ interest in education policy stems from his childhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he said in an interview. His mother was a public school teacher and administrator. But she pulled him out of his public elementary school and sent him to private schools when she felt he wasn’t being challenged, he said.

“She thought there was more to me than just the public school classroom, and she was right,” he said. “School choice, it was always important to me because that was my life. I think it’s important for every child and important for families to have the options.”

It was Mrs. Donalds, whom he met in college, who drew him to evangelical Christianity. His complete conversion came when he was 22 and waiting for Cracker Barrel. He felt the call and “gave my life to Christ,” he said.

The couple settled in Naples, Florida, and became active in schools after seeing one of their children struggle in public school, Mrs. Donalds said. She was elected to the local school board. The two began working toward opening a charter school — a school funded by taxpayers but run independently.

In 2017, Mr. Donalds was sworn into the Florida House of Representatives, serving a district in the Naples area. That same year, Mrs. Donalds started OptimaEd, a charter school management operation.

The couple’s work often intersected. Mr. Donalds co-sponsored a bill that, among many other things, allowed charter schools to obtain additional funding from local tax initiatives. He supported term limits for school board members, a proposal that Ms. Donalds had long pursued as a way to force staff changes and potentially open up seats for charter school advocates.

Couples with overlapping careers are common in Florida’s part-time Legislature. The rules for lawmakers are much looser than for local officials, who have more restrictions on potential conflicts with family businesses, said Caroline Klancke, former general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics.

“We didn’t send any money directly to her,” Mr. Donalds said, referring to Mrs. Donalds. “We were setting up a programmatic change in the state of Florida.”

In 2022, Ms. Donalds managed several charter schools in Florida. Under contracts, her company received a share — about 10 percent — of the schools’ public funding to provide human resources, marketing and other services. That year, the company raised about $4 million in public funds and put about $2.6 million back into the schools, public records show, while Ms. Donalds was paid a salary of about $180,000.

Those numbers became a source of tension with the schools. Since then, three charter schools operated by OptimaEd have terminated their contracts with the company amid complaints that it was not putting enough money back into the schools, according to public records and three people involved with the schools who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Ms Donalds did not respond to a request for comment.

She has increasingly focused her business on an online academy and virtual classes that accept vouchers. In 2017, her husband led a successful effort to refund private school tuition to students who said they had been bullied. Last year, Florida went much further, expanding its voucher programs to all students, regardless of circumstances or income, and opening a new flow of public money to private schools.

Advocates described how the couple helped lay the groundwork for pandemic-era policies that put Florida at the center of the education debate.

In 2015, Ms. Donalds started a network of conservative school board members that included women who would later lead Moms for Liberty. (Ms. Donalds is an advisor to Moms for Liberty.)

The Donaldses were among the first members of the Florida Citizens Alliance, according to the group’s founder, Keith Flaugh. The alliance has pushed to remove books from schools that it claims indoctrinate children with liberal ideas, including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and other classics by African-American authors.

Mr. Donalds has adopted some of Mr.’s educational policies. DeSantis was applauded — and given credit for it. After Florida’s governor passed a high-profile bill allowing anyone to petition to remove a book from a school library, Mr. Donalds the law as an extension of his work in the legislature.

Under pressure from schools, Mr. DeSantis recently rolled back his law, limiting the number of complaints outsiders could file, noting that the process was being abused by outside groups.

These laws “denied many students access to education and important reading materials,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, who served as a lawmaker with Mr. Donalds and now advises Equality Florida, an LGBTQ rights organization. “In the end, none of this was necessary.”

Yet in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an event often seen as an audition for up-and-coming politicians, Mr. Donalds made it clear that he stands by his vision for schools.

“We are going to fundamentally transform the government of the United States,” he said to applause. “The last major area where we really need a resurgence of American leadership is our culture, and that is with our children.”

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