A mother’s sacrifices fuel state Rep.’s zeal for equal opportunity

Rep. Donalds, pictured with his family.

Editor’s note: This profile is part of a series on Florida legislators who help shape education issues. See previous entries here, here and here.  

Meredith Brown watched as her young son dismantled the clock on her nightstand and put it back together easily.

She knew that her 7-year-old son, Byron Donalds, now a Republican state representative from Naples, had a real hunger for learning.

Brown learned Donalds finished his math problems early and was progressing faster than the rest of his peers in public school.

She concluded her son, with his eye for intricate details, needed more intense coursework. And she was prepared to sacrifice to make sure he got it.

Brown, a single mother of three, made the decision to put her son in private school. She remembers the exchange with the public-school teacher.

“Where are you going to send him to school?” the teacher asked. “Do you know how expensive it is?”

In response, Brown simply said: “When one door closes, another one opens. I want to make sure that my child gets the proper education that he needs, and he is in an environment that will allow him to grow.”Brown worked as a coordinator of trauma service at the local hospital in New York at the time. She knew she would have to scrimp and save to afford tuition. But she felt it would be worth it.

“As you know, what happens with many children that are in the inner city: they become a statistic, especially children who are coming from single-family homes,” she said. “If it is going to be, then it is up to me, so Byron can be a credit to himself, his family and society.”

After completing first grade, Brown sent Byron to schools like Brooklyn Friends School, an independent Quaker school, and Nazareth Regional High School, a Catholic school.

“I found that the private schools were able to meet him where he is and give him the work that was necessary so that he would stay engaged and move up the educational continuum,” she said in an interview.

Eventually, Donalds left Brooklyn, New York and came to Florida. He graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in finance and marketing. He went on to a career in financial services, and is currently an advisor at Wells Fargo. He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2016.

In a recent interview, Donalds said his educational experiences growing up have certainly shaped his policy views.

He comes from a family of educators. His sister is a public school teacher. His grandmother taught in the public school system for more than 30 years, and his mom now serves as an assistant principal of a public elementary school in Brooklyn.

His wife, Erika, is a member of the Collier County School Board. She said Donalds places the same emphasis on education with their three sons as his mother did with him. She said he wants all children to have the same ticket to success that he had.

“He wants that for as many children as possible,” she said. “That’s what drives him to work so hard.”

Donalds sits on three education committees, and is vice chairman of the House’s education budget panel. He’s taken on a growing number of high-profile issues. He fervently supported HB 7069, a massive education law that, among other things, created a new Schools of Hope grant program aimed at attracting high-performing charter schools to struggling areas.

This year, he filed legislation that would a create a new school choice program for victims of bullying and harassment in public schools*.

“I think he brings a lot of wisdom and strength to the education arena, and provides some of the forward thinking to help position the state to where we are going,” said Rep. Mel Ponder, R- Fort Walton Beach.

Ponder added Donalds is an advocate for whatever schooling option is best for an individual student, whether it is traditional public, private or charter schools.

In 2017, he passed HB 989, which provides more transparency regarding instructional materials in schools. It also allows residents to challenge textbook adoptions.

But his work in education predates his time in the Legislature. In 2014, he and his wife helped found Mason Classical Academy, a charter school in Naples. The school opened its doors in 2014. Donalds stepped away from his official position at the school after he was elected.

Brooklyn born

After she decided to save all her money for private school tuition for her son, Brown had to forgo family vacations.

Her tax refunds would go directly to Donalds’ private school tuition.

“I ate sardines for many years so he could have the chicken and the other meats,” Brown said. “I made my own clothes because I couldn’t afford to buy things.”

Donalds remembers his upbringing and how he was viewed as the child that talked too much and was called out in class.

“My mother did not want to send me back to public school,” he said. “She felt they weren’t challenging enough for me.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples and his mother, Meredith Brown.

Brown was an active participant in her son’s education. She attended school meetings and parent-teacher conferences. She would wake him up every day at 4 a.m. to make sure everything was ready for school.

To make sure everything at the school was in order, she made random visits.

“You have to show up unannounced,” she said.

Brown also developed a “wall of fame” on her wall with all her degrees.

“If you want your children to go to school and cherish education, you have to put your degrees up so they can be seen,” she said. “Then when they get a degree, their degree goes up on the wall, and that stays there, and it is very important.”

Donalds remembers the sacrifices his mother made. There were no new clothes or cable TV. Brown remembered the small black and white TV with rabbit ears that was situated in their small home.

During the intense debate of HB 7069 in 2017, Donalds spoke during a House Education panel about his upbringing and how important it is to reach children “who look like me.”

“If your position is to protect your kingdom on this issue, then you and I are not going to get along on this issue,” he said. “It is about doing what is necessary for kids to be able to reach the stratosphere.”

Reflecting on contentious debates about public education, Donalds recalled his mother’s determination.

“My mother knew what she wanted for her kids, and no one would tell her otherwise,” he said.

Erika Donalds said the couple’s childhoods show education can transform someone’s life.

“It doesn’t matter where you came from or where your parents are in their lives,” she said. “Anyone can use education as the key to change the trajectory of their lives. We want all students in Florida and otherwise to have those same opportunities we had.”

The future of education

With the passage of HB 7069, Donalds’ comments about kingdom-protecting proved prescient. He said politics continues to cause difficulties as the law is implemented. School districts have filed three separate suits challenging it.

“It is a fight of who is in control,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is not what is in the best interest of the student.”

Donalds said he is confident courts will ultimately uphold the law. But he sees a much bigger fight over the future of public education.

The education system of the early 20th century was designed to bring students out of the farm fields and prepare them for jobs in factories, he said. Now, people expect a system with many of the same basic design features to equip students “to be productive in a 21st century economy,” which requires something vastly different.

Looking back at his work in the Florida House, Donalds said he still sometimes can’t believe he made it this far. He ran for Congress in 2012, but couldn’t escape a crowded Republican primary field.

“Five years ago, I was a regular guy going to work, picking up my kids from school,” he said. “It shows that regular people can have a major impact on our government and how we organize society.”

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program. It would also help administer the Hope Scholarship program if lawmakers create it.

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