Florida lawmakers’ wives on new charter school boards

Two new charter school applications in Tallahassee and Martin County bear the names of two wives of school choice advocates in the Florida House.
Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds moves two education-related proposals through her Constitution Revision Commission local government committee on Dec. 14, 2017. [The Florida Channel]
Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds moves two education-related proposals through her Constitution Revision Commission local government committee on Dec. 14, 2017. [The Florida Channel]
Published March 29, 2018|Updated March 29, 2018

Though far removed geographically from each other, two new Florida charter schools share an uncommon feature: They both have a board member who is married to a state lawmaker heavily involved in crafting state policy on charter schools.

Anne Corcoran, the founder of a charter school in Pasco County, is assisting with a new Tallahassee school. She's married to Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

Erika Donalds, the founder of a charter school in Collier County, is leading the effort to open a new Martin County school. Her husband is Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who shepherded Speaker Corcoran's bill on vouchers for bullied students through the House.

Their involvement is a reminder of how Florida Republicans legislating the public school system hold deep convictions that charter schools and other school choice programs are the future of the state's education — and how the lines between public policy and personal ties can get blurred.

Neither Corcoran nor Donalds is paid for their role in helping develop the new schools. Both women said they were approached by the founders of these new schools because of their expertise in opening a school.

When asked about the school choice debate Anne Corcoran said "it's not my fight."

"He (the Speaker) has been for school choice for a long time. I'm not against school choice but my passion is liberal arts education and it just happens to be a charter," said Corcoran, a lawyer who has six children with the Speaker.

She said she decided to open her liberal arts charter in Pasco County after her children's private school was boarded up, saying the specialized curriculum is "a broader and more beautiful understanding of education."

Corcoran dismissed previous allegations that her husband has a conflict of interest, saying her family likely loses money for the unpaid time she dedicates to her charter school.

Democrats have long taken issue with lawmakers being so closely involved with school choice programs and schools. Most Democrats oppose directing public dollars to fund the state's proliferation of public charter schools.

This year's funding increase for normal school operations was 47 cents per student, far below what it had been in previous years. That does nothing to ease anxiety of districts and teachers who feel they are being asked to continually do more with less at the same time more dollars get steered toward school vouchers each year.

"Richard Corcoran's education policies and the cuts to public schools have hurt millions of Florida's children while his own family and corporate donors have benefited from the state-sponsored expansion of charter schools," said Gwen Graham, a Democratic candidate for governor, in an emailed statement. She has been vocal about the Speaker's charter connections in the past.

Corcoran has long been considering a run for governor and is rumored to announce his decision next month.

Graham also criticized Corcoran for his brother's employment as a lobbyist who works for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter schools, according to the state's lobbyist directory.

Corcoran did not respond to requests for comment.

Both proposed new schools would teach a "classical" curriculum, focused on teaching philosophy, classic literature and even Latin. State Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, is also a supporter of classical charter schools, as he runs a foundation that has granted money to True North Classical Academy in Miami.

Donalds also said she got involved with charter schools because her kids needed more than what the public school in Naples provided. She eventually moved one of her children to a private classical school to try it out, which inspired her to launch her own public charter school in the same mold.

"It was night and day from our experience in public school system … he's getting in the car and instead of crying, he's telling me about what he learned all day about the crusades and Benjamin Franklin," Donalds said of the switch.

Donalds is as prominent advocate for school choice throughout the state. She's a member of this year's Constitution Revision Commission, a powerful 37-member council which meets every two decades to decide on amendments to Florida's constitution that will be put on the November ballot.

Donalds said her husband's beliefs about school choice are undoubtedly fueled by their family's experience and by the passion she has for her work founding her school.

"No one would question any parent who has a child in a traditional public school when they advocate for more funding. No one calls that a conflict of interest," she said. "People say all kinds of crazy stuff about us. If you only knew the sacrifice and how much we spend and give up — we'd have to be passionate or there's no way we'd do all of this."

The applications for both the new schools in Leon and Martin counties were recently recommended for approval by their local committees. The official approvals by the school districts are expected to be handed down in mid-April, and the schools are scheduled to open in 2019.