On the Collier County School Board and on the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, Erika Donalds of Naples made a big impression on the state’s education policy landscape.
She led the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, which split from the larger Florida School Boards Association over vouchers. She pressed for school board term limits and a statewide charter school authorizer in an amendment that famously failed Supreme Court muster amid heated statewide debate.
Now, Donalds is turning her attention to expanding school choice statewide, both at the legislative policy level and the local implementation. She has left her financial planning firm of 16 years, and launched School Choice Movement, an organization aimed at paving the path for more school options and letting parents know what those options are.
“My time on the School Board really led me to conclude that the best prescription for school reform is the free market,” said Donalds, who listed her ideal objective as finding a way to get education scholarship accounts to more all students.
She acknowledged that some leaders of the “monopolistic” school district model might argue the idea of funding children’s education wherever they find the best opportunity for them would spread funds too thin, making it harder to plan and diminishing children’s education. She suggested such a notion misses the point that many school choice programs cost less per student than the school districts' expenses, yet often yield better results.
“When you allow for competition and choice, you get a better value,” Donalds said.
She pointed to the successes of the Miami-Dade County school district, which has expanded its own educational options beyond neighborhood schools and seen its students' performance rise. If Florida’s largest district can make it work, she said, others should be able to, as well.
“It’s presumptuous to think it would raise a crisis if we do continue to expand school choice,” Donalds said.
She noted that over 20 years, only about 10 percent of Florida students attend charter schools. That indicates the system would not collapse, she said, as all change is gradual and would continue in that vein. Yet change is critical in order to provide all children choices, Donalds added, saying she wants to help bring that about.
One key part of her platform: Transportation funding. If schools offer great programs, and children can’t get there, the effort is not making its needed impact.
“We recognize that as a huge barrier to parents,” Donalds said, including that as part of her group’s 2019 legislative platform along with education scholarships, charter school independence and school board term limits.
Donalds has some skin in the game. She also runs the Optima Foundation, which helps charter school startup organizations to open their schools. And her husband, Rep. Byron Donalds, chairs the state House PreK-12 Quality committee, which hears legislation on some of the same issues she’s advocating.
Her partners in the endeavor include former Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and former Duval County School Board member Scott Shine, both of whom also retired from their positions this past fall. They anticipate criticism from the same people and groups that did not support their efforts with the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, but Donalds said she won’t be deterred.
“I decided that this is what I would like to do with my time and talent for the next 16 years,” she said.