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The Charter and Virtual School Lobbyists have taken over control of the FL Legislature. The most important education article you will read this year.
From the Palm Beach Post, by John Kennedy
After spending heavily on ruling Republicans last election, charter schools and online education companies are poised to gain a major push forward this spring from the Legislature.
But financial and family bonds that link top GOP lawmakers to this rapidly growing industry also have given it outsize advantage, raising concerns from those feeling threatened by this shift, and renewing calls for stricter ethics standards in Tallahassee.
“The charter and virtual school lobby thinks it has taken control of this Legislature and they’re getting plenty of help from some members to do this,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Companies and political committees promoting alternatives to traditional public schools poured more than $2 million into Florida campaigns last fall, mostly to GOP lawmakers, according to an analysis by The Palm Beach Post.
In addition to a formidable cast of lobbyists, the industry also now has on its side a handful of influential legislators with deep roots in the field.
House Education Budget chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is a land-use consultant whose company has built charter schools for Academica, where his brother-in-law is CEO. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, a former education budget committee member, is CEO of Doral College, which is managed by Academica.
Academica spent $100,000 in last fall’s campaigns, while its construction unit, School Development LLC, gave $138,000, including $60,000 to the Florida Republican Party.
The Senate’s current Education Committee Chairman, John Legg, R-Port Richey, is business manager of a charter school, where his wife is the administrator and co-founder.
House budget chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, is a volunteer board member on McKeel Academy, a charter school named for his grandfather. The wife of Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, in line to become House speaker next year, is starting a charter school near their Pasco County home.
These lawmakers acknowledge they are advocates for alternate education. But they also say their hometown business and family interests aren’t the catalyst for what they do at the Capitol.
Others aren’t so sure.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have already vowed to enact tougher ethics laws this spring. They decry a revolving door where top lawmakers often take lucrative jobs with lobbying firms after leaving office.
But Dan Krassner, executive director of the watchdog nonprofit, Integrity Florida, said it is also wrong to turn a blind eye when lawmakers advance legislation that helps industries with whom they’re currently associated.
“Legislators have written the ethics code so that their votes can benefit campaign donors without it being a conflict of interest,” Krassner said. “These rules have allowed a system where large campaign contributions from special interests drive public policy in Florida.”
‘You need to be wise’
Legg, who said he has worked 15 years at his charter school – beginning before his election to the Legislature in 2004 – said he draws a bright line between his support for alternate education and his role as a lawmaker.
“We are a citizen Legislature,” said Legg. “If there’s some sort of quid pro quo, or if a school gets special, preferential treatment, that’s absolutely wrong. I don’t sponsor charter bills because of the perceived conflict. But you need to be wise.”
McKeel said his feelings are well-known. “I believe in choice,” he said.
Fresen, though, may be the most active advocate this spring. He has spearheaded a rewrite of the state’s student funding formula in what critics say is a move that will open to private, online companies the $200 million spent on the state-financed Florida Virtual School.
“Money drives behavior,” Jim Horne, a lobbyist for charter and online companies, told the House Education Committee. “And a lot of money drives a lot of behavior. The last thing we want to do is blunt more access and blunt more choices.”
Horne, a former state senator and education commissioner under former Gov. Jeb Bush, includes among his clients Charter Schools USA, which contributed $215,450 to Republican candidates and committees last fall.
The Fort Lauderdale company operates 48 charter schools in Florida and in four other states, including Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach.
Rewrite of bill defended
Fresen downplays the role his proposal will have in helping companies gain more access to taxpayer dollars for online education.
He also said his controversial rewrite has nothing to do with his sister being married to the head of a charter and online company.
Fresen said the education budget he helped compile does plenty for conventional classrooms – including $676.4 million for pay raises for teachers, whose leaders are now among his sharpest critics.
“At the end of the day, there’s nothing here that’s specific for one member of the Legislature,” Fresen said. “It’s an across-the-board thing. If you vote to increase the transportation budget by $400 million and you’re a road contractor, is that wrong?”
Fresen also said: “The bill doesn’t do much for online companies. It does more for school districts.”
Private share of tax money
Most districts disagree. Palm Beach County Schools lobbyist Vern Pickup-Crawford said the county will lose about $5 million for virtual education with the change.
Ron Book, lobbyist for V Schoolz Inc., the Coral Gables e-learning company where South Florida entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga is a major investor, told lawmakers it was time for private companies to share in the state funds going to taxpayer-backed Florida Virtual School, which started in 1997.
Huizenga is a major donor to Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Republicans.
“You continue to foster a semi-monopoly in the world of virtual education,” Book said. “What you have before you… levels the playing field.”
The House last week approved new charter and online measures in votes that broke mostly along party lines.
A “parent-trigger” bill pushed by Bush was perhaps the most controversial. It gives parents in failing schools authority to demand changes from their school boards that could include turning the school over to a private management company.
Bush is a prominent cheerleader for the alternate education industry, which flourished during his eight years as Florida governor and still helps finance a nationwide education policy think tank he leads.
Charter schools are publicly funded, nonsectarian schools that operate under a contract with local school boards. Many schools are focused on accepting low-performing students.
Charter schools are funded like other public schools in Florida – receiving taxpayer dollars based on the number of full-time students enrolled. But they are exempt from many regulations and can be run by management companies like Academica and Charter Schools USA.
There are 575 charter schools operating in Florida this year – more than double the number existing a decade ago. In Palm Beach County, 40 charter schools operate, up from 35 last year.
Ford, of the Florida Education Association, said the drive to bring more private companies into education is troubling.
“It’s like they’re trying to create a shadow school system – this one run by private industry,” Ford said.
Lawmakers with charter school ties
Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey: Business manager for charter school co-founded by wife
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami: CEO of Doral College, managed by a charter firm.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami: Land-use consultant who has done work for charter school company run by brother-in-law.
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland: Volunteer board member of a charter school named after grandfather, a former educator.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes: Wife starting a charter school.