It’s 6 A.M. A little girl, who looks to be about ten years old, hits the button on her alarm clock. She eats a bowl of cereal and brushes her teeth and hair before going to school. In class, she takes notes while her teacher, Mrs. Marty, gives a lesson. Then everyone puts on spacesuits and helmets, and the class relocates to outer space.
This is the vision for a new kind of education sold in a promotional video for Optima Academy Online, an all-virtual school that was launched in 2022. The little girl, like most of her classmates and teachers, spends a good part of her day in a Meta Quest 2 headset—a set of one-pound white goggles that extends in a single band across her eyes. She wears the headset on and off for about three hours, removing it to read a book, eat a sandwich, and hot-glue some sort of tinfoil art. Her classmates are scattered across different towns, and her teachers live all over the country. In the video, the little girl doesn’t have a single in-person interaction.
The virtual school is part of OptimaEd, a company in Florida founded by Erika Donalds, a forty-three-year-old conservative education activist. During the past school year, the academy enrolled more than a hundred and seventy full-time students up to eighth grade from all over Florida—a number that OptimaEd will roughly double this fall. Starting in third grade, full-time students wear a headset for thirty to forty minutes at a time, for four or five sessions, with built-in pauses so that the students don’t experience visual fatigue. (Younger students do something closer to regular virtual school, using Microsoft Teams and Canvas.) In the afternoon, kids complete their coursework independently, with teachers available to answer questions digitally.
OptimaEd is possible because of Florida’s distinctive education-policy landscape. The state was one of the pioneers of the school-choice movement. Ever since Jeb Bush was governor, in the early two-thousands, Florida has provided various kinds of vouchers to students from poor families, and later to those with disabilities, allowing them to purchase courses from companies like OptimaEd. Governor Ron DeSantis expanded that program by making all students eligible for education vouchers, funded with the money that would otherwise go toward their public-school education. This legislation has made it even easier for parents to use state dollars for OptimaEd’s products. But the company is also quickly expanding beyond Florida. This fall, it’s providing V.R. services to students in Arizona—another state that has embraced school choice—and parts of Michigan.
OptimaEd bills its education as classical, with an emphasis on the intellectual traditions of Western civilization and the liberal arts. Younger students learn phonics and diagram sentences. Older ones read the great books and the Constitution. Teachers talk a lot about virtues, such as courage and self-government. “It’s a very traditional, back-to-basics education,” Donalds said on a podcast recently.
Donalds comes from the world of Florida school-choice activism. She’s well known in Florida political circles: a few of Donalds’s closest activist allies founded the group Moms for Liberty, which has become the leading conservative voice in the movement for parents’ rights in education, and Donalds serves on the group’s advisory board. She is also married to a congressman, Byron Donalds, a rising star in the Republican Party, who was briefly a contender for Speaker of the House in 2023. (A number of Republicans in Florida have encouraged him to run for governor once DeSantis is out of office.) The movements for school choice and parental rights sometimes dovetail with the classical-school movement, which has been experiencing a revival in America since the nineteen-eighties. Whereas the former often focusses on the shortcomings of public schools, the latter offers an alternative vision for education: a way of teaching students that calls back to the ancient wisdom and traditions of the Western world, instead of instructing them using progressive pedagogy and frameworks.
Erika Donalds has built an experiment in total parental control over education. “I see a huge and growing industry of à-la-carte education options—the ability to customize the experience both physically and geographically,” Donalds said. “We’ve been told that only certified teachers in a traditional classroom environment can deliver instruction. And we know that’s just not true.” She believes that virtual-reality school hits many of the benefits of in-person learning—real-time instruction, classmates, field trips—while letting families build the schedules and communities they want. If parents aren’t satisfied with whatever ideas their local public school is pushing, they can opt out by putting their kid in a headset. “If you entrust your child with us, you know that the curriculum is not going to be contrary to what you’re teaching at home,” she said.
Donalds is a certified public accountant, so it’s fitting that her radicalization began with something called “new math.” The Common Core, an effort to standardize grade-level learning across the country, was being rolled out in 2010. The bipartisan Common Core initiative was led by policy wonks who wanted to make American students more globally competitive, partly in response to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which had created a patchwork of different standards across the states. Common Core leaders adopted techniques used in other industrialized countries, such as new strategies of mathematical reasoning—students, for example, might be required to draw out a multi-step number line in order to complete a simple subtraction problem. The oldest of the Donaldses’ three sons was in elementary school at the time, and, like many others, he found the new process confusing. Donalds started attending anti-Common Core rallies, wearing a T-shirt that read “Stop Common Core,” featuring a stop sign and an apple with a worm inside. Critics on the left objected to the initiative’s emphasis on standardized testing; those on the right saw it as an example of federal overreach into local schools, led by faraway bureaucrats in Washington. Parts of the anti-Common Core movement were associated with the Tea Party, which eventually helped launch Byron’s political career.
Erika Donalds ran for her local school board in 2014 and served for four years. But, during that time, she discovered a more wide-reaching way to change the education landscape in Florida. Her husband had received an invitation to join the board of a new classical charter school, Mason Classical Academy, that was opening in Naples. The family was interested in the educational model, which they saw as an improvement over their public-school experience because of its rigor and focus on direct encounters with original texts. Byron Donalds joined Mason’s board, and Erika Donalds took on an unpaid position doing accounting and administrative work to get the school launched. All three of their sons eventually enrolled. Their activism became more focussed. They weren’t just advocating school choice. They wanted to expand the classical model across America.
Throughout the next few years, conflicts started emerging at Mason. Erika and Byron thought the school lacked proper oversight and planning. In 2019, a special counsel from the county school district found mismanagement and asked for two of Mason’s board members to step down. (Mason has called this report a “sham,” and another review, conducted by a law firm that the school hired, found no mismanagement.) Mason sued Erika Donalds and various others, alleging a conspiracy to take over Mason; Donalds filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which she’s called frivolous. By then, the couple had pulled their kids out of the school—and Erika Donalds had started laying the groundwork for Optima. “I hate to see poor decision-making by a few bad actors damage our movement,” she wrote in a letter to “Friends and Colleagues.”
Donalds wanted to found and run classical charter schools, using the curriculum provided by Hillsdale College, a small liberal-arts school in Michigan. (The virtual academy, which was founded later, does not use Hillsdale’s curriculum.) So far, Optima has launched five brick-and-mortar schools, providing them with administrative services. (Two of the schools have since decided to become independent.) “These organizations are like multimillion-dollar businesses,” Donalds told me. “I saw an opportunity to bring my skills into that industry.” Today, Optima has figured out a number of ways to advance its ideas beyond its charter schools. It recently started doing professional-development training for the Tennessee Department of Education as a subcontractor, and hopes to consult with more state and local governments.
The open marketplace created by school-choice policies can occasionally blur the purpose of public money. The state of Mississippi is suing a virtual-reality company called Lobaki for using funds allocated to welfare to create a virtual-reality school. (Lobaki denies that it misused state welfare funds.) This is one piece of a dizzying corruption case embroiling a former governor, a retired pro-wrestler, and the football Hall of Famer Brett Favre. One of Lobaki’s co-founders, Vince Jordan, is now OptimaEd’s chief technology officer. (Jordan denied all wrongdoing and emphasized that he is no longer involved with Lobaki.) When I brought this up to Donalds, she said that she had no knowledge of the lawsuit. The laws regulating charter schools can also be complicated. This summer, the Florida Department of Education wrote to Optima Academy, saying that the virtual school had over-enrolled non-local students and would have to pay a penalty of some four hundred and seventy thousand dollars. Donalds countered that the law doesn’t apply to charter schools, and said that they haven’t yet had to pay any fines.
In Florida, school choice was given a huge boost by the pandemic. Many families came away dissatisfied with the country’s forced experiment in remote learning, but some found that they liked the model. OptimaEd has capitalized on that interest, pitching itself directly to homeschooling families and to churches. “Pastors, are you ready to take a more active role in providing quality school choice options to your congregation and community?” one flyer reads.
Support for school choice does not necessarily follow predictable racial and political lines. Black families tend to be more supportive of charter schools, education savings accounts, and vouchers and scholarships for private school than other racial groups, according to the journal Education Next. “Lots of Black families and Latino families are happy to send their kids to charter schools, because, in general, they want their kids to go to what they think is the best school, and they’re going to leverage the options that are available to them,” Liz Cohen, the policy director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown, said. Optima’s online academy reflects this diversity: last year, forty-six per cent of its students were nonwhite, and a fifth were economically disadvantaged. Erika Donalds’s own family is mixed race: her husband is Black, and she is white. She says that she often gets stereotyped in ways that don’t reflect her family life. “The race card is played against people who espouse conservative values,” she told me. “People who oppose our ideas try to discredit us by questioning our motives.”