Trump Elevates a Conservative ‘Warrior’ on Education

Trump Elevates a Conservative ‘Warrior’ on Education

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 Satan’s work.

The couple was warmly welcomed as allies in the cause. Ms. Donalds was singled out for opening a charter school in Florida. As a state legislator, Mr. Donalds had created a school voucher program that, in the words of one speaker, let children “get a biblical worldview education.”

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

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

Mr. Donalds’s career is a testament to his advice. His interests — in overhauling public education, evangelical Christianity and electing Donald J. Trump — have propelled a rapid political ascent. A backbencher congressman in only his second term, Mr. Donalds, 45, has fast become a prominent surrogate for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and a conservative media regular, serving up earnest and on-message defenses of the former president.

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

The national attention is less remarkable to those in Florida, where the Donaldses have spent years building a name — and a business — for themselves in the state’s white-hot battles over schools.

Mr. and Ms. 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, the effort cast public schools as failing laboratories for liberal ideas and pushed to funnel public education funds into charter or private schools.

Mr. Donalds backed legislation that gave outside groups a bigger say in school curriculums, years before Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida set off a national debate by making it easier for groups to remove books from school libraries and limiting teaching about sexuality and gender.

The couple has deep ties to leading forces in those debates, including Moms for Liberty, Hillsdale College and the Florida Citizens Alliance, which has pushed to remove books that it deems inappropriate from schools. Both Mr. and Ms. Donalds have made remarks disparaging homosexuality.

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

The couple’s work has been both advocacy and income. As Mr. Donalds pushed legislation expanding access to charter schools and voucher programs, Ms. Donalds began to build a company and a nonprofit that took advantage of that expansion.

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

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

Mr. Trump gave the congressman an enthusiastic welcome at a fund-raiser in Mar-a-Lago this month, saying that Mr. Donalds had “something very special out there politically” and that he was a favorite among his club’s wealthy clientele. “We have no poor people, which is the only thing I don’t like about Mar-a-Lago, you know — I like diversity,” the former president said while introducing Mr. Donalds, who is Black.

He has also publicly praised Ms. Donalds, who is now an advisory board member at the Heritage Foundation, prompting speculation that she might be considered for a future administration post.

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

Mr. Donalds’s 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 for 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. Just to have the options, I think, is important for every child and important for families.”

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

The couple settled in Naples, Fla., and became active in schools as they watched one of their children struggle at a public school, Ms. Donalds has said. She was elected to the local school board. Both began working to open a charter school — a school funded by taxpayers but run independently.

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

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

A couple with overlapping careers is common in Florida’s part-time Legislature. Rules for lawmakers are much looser than they are for local officials, who are more restricted when it comes to potential conflicts with family businesses, said Caroline Klancke, a former general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics.

“We weren’t funneling money directly to her,” Mr. Donalds said, referring to Ms. Donalds. “We were setting up a programmatic change in the state of Florida.”

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

Those figures became a source of tension with the schools. Since then, three charter schools managed by OptimaEd ended their contracts with the company amid complaints that it was putting too little money back into the schools, according to public records and three people involved in the schools who asked for 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 offer the private school tuition reimbursements to students who said they were 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 had 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 with women who went on to lead Moms for Liberty. (Ms. Donalds is a Moms for Liberty adviser.)

The Donaldses were some of 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 from African American authors.

Mr. Donalds has cheered on — and taken credit for — some of Mr. DeSantis’s education policies. After the Florida governor passed a high-profile bill allowing anyone to petition to remove a book from a school library, Mr. Donalds described 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 that outsiders could make and noting that the process had been abused by outside groups.

These laws “denied many students access to education, and to important reading materials,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, who was a legislator alongside Mr. Donalds and now advises Equality Florida, an L.G.B.T.Q. rights organization. “At the end of the day, none of this was necessary.”

Yet, in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an event that is often considered an audition for rising politicians, Mr. Donalds made clear that he was committed to his vision for schools.

“We’re going to fundamentally transform the United States government,” he said to applause. “The last major area where we truly need a resurgence in American leadership is in our culture, and it’s with our children.”

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