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Erika Donalds talks school choice, charter school innovation during National School Choice Week

Erika Don Erika Donalds, a former Collier Co. School Board member and advocate for parental choice in education. alds
Erika Donalds
Used with permission
Erika Donalds, a former Collier Co. School Board member and advocate for parental choice in education.

It’s National School Choice week and in Florida, the movement to give parents more ways to educate their children continues to grow. Erika Donalds, a former Collier County School Board member, has become a major voice in the state’s choice movement. Donalds continues to branch out into more areas of choice—most recently, launching a virtual charter school to bring Virtual Reality into more homes.

Many kids struggled early in the pandemic to make the switch from in-person classrooms to lessons taught online via platforms like Zoom. Teachers struggled too. The short experiment in broader online learning, got Erika Donalds thinking: How can schools do online education better? Her solution? Virtual Reality.

“Students in an Oculus headset feels like they’re sitting in a classroom with a teacher… and they can build community…they can also be transported to other classroom environments like on the mood, or the constitutional convention or Pompeii here they can be immersed in the experienced," she said, describing the experience students who enroll in her new charter school, Optima Classical Academy, can have.

It’s a lot like the Holodeck from Star Trek. Except, maybe not quite that advanced. During the past decade, Donalds has become a powerful force in the school choice movement. A few years ago she was named to the state’s powerful constitution revision committee. There, she pitched an ambitious and controversial Amendment that would have eliminated school board salaries, created a separate group to approve and oversee charter schools, and make civics required teaching. The amendment got tossed off the ballot after a judge ruled its ballot summary was misleading—but many of the ideas in the amendment proposal have persisted, and that's something Donalds is proud of.

“It was a great policy discussion to continue in the legislative process," Donalds said of the amendment proposals.

Lawmakers are again debating whether to strip local school board members of their salaries—but the House and Senate are divided on the issue, with the House plan doing away with them altogether, and the Senate drastically reducing the pay. For Donalds, there is no compromise with organizations like teacher's unions, which she sees as a hindrance to public schools, not a help; it's a view formed by her time as a Collier County School Board member.

“I personally tried to initiative a bonus program for teachers in Collier County to go and stay in Immokalee where most all Title I schools and [has] a very transient population—and the teachers union wouldn’t negotiate that at all," she said of the experience.

What she’d like to see in education is something long sought by other school choice groups: A plan to give education money directly to parents, instead of schools. The idea behind the concept is that parents would then be able to send their child to any school they want—public, private or charter.

The state has nearly 700 charter schools. Those schools are privately run, but considered part of public school districts. Charters are more tightly regulated when it comes to their academic performance and finances. But they receive less overall funding than their traditional school counterparts. Donalds wants to see more growth in PRIVATE schools—and believes universal vouchers are the answer for that.

“I would like to see a lot more robust competition in the private school market targeted to public school students," she said. "If those options were available to every family, it would create a tremendous marketplace for parents to choose from.”

But there remains a big hurdle: transportation. Money alone doesn’t necessarily enable choice because not every parent has the ability to transport their child to a school that may be across town.

“We’ve seen in Duval county a bit of innovation," said Donalds, "where the district is working with the county and combining efforts in transportation to transport older children. I think that’s an excellent idea—why are we duplicating government-provided transportation with the school district and the county? We need to rethink public transportation in the state when it comes to how to get children to the schools of their choice.”

Critics of choice have long raised concerns that Florida has created a system of have’s and have-nots. That it is encouraging those with the means and ability to take their children out of public schools, to do so—leaving behind kids who, for various reasons, can’t go. Opponents to things like the corporate tax credit scholarship say such programs breed inequality because most of the children in poor-performing public schools are poor, Black and brown. And, they argue, the choice movement flies in the face of the American invention of a free, public system of education where every child can be educated. But Donald’s notes the nation's record on educating all of its kids, has never been perfect—and has, in fact, been riddled by inequity:

“I don’t know you can say in the history of public education that disadvantaged students have received the same high-quality education as students who are not in that situation. I don’t know of a time in our history where they’ve received an equitable quality.”

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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