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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Florida lacks ethics when it comes to charter schools

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Danial Ruth

Only in that strange and mysterious land of Tallahassee, the Potemkin Village of the Panhandle, would elected representatives who are more ethically compromised than a Dale Mabry brass-pole-swinging floozie lather themselves up in conflicts of interest without a scintilla of embarrassment.

Think about this. Illinois' Rod Blagojevich picked the wrong state to get indicted as governor. In Tallahassee, they would be erecting statues honoring his chutzpah.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, shamelessly palmed $150,000 in public money from a community college to pen an unreadable tome on Florida political history that makes a finger painting look like The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Waaaaa!, is extracting his revenge on higher education because he didn't get his way on splitting off USF Polytechnic as an independent campus. The capital is awash in egos gone wild.

The latest example of the Florida Legislature treating its responsibilities as if they were little more than a yummy feeding trough full of Beluga caviar, begins, but hardly ends, with Port Richey Republican state Rep. John Legg, who used his juice in Tallahassee to benefit a charter school run by a nonprofit he helped found.

As the St. Petersburg Times' Jeffrey Solochek reported, when the Pasco County School Board rejected Legg's request to grant prekindergarten students automatic entry into his New Port Richey Dayspring Academy charter school, which was prohibited by state law, rather than using a random selection process, the lawmaker shrugged.

After all, when you have the clout Legg does all you have to do is simply change the law, which is exactly what happened.

Conflict of interest, perhaps? Don't be such a purist about these things. Ethics, schmetics.

Indeed, charter school connections are all the rage in Tallahassee. Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, who chairs an education subcommittee, was more than happy to push legislation giving "high performing" charter schools a fast track to expand. What's the definition of "high performing"? Well, having family members involved in the business, as Fresen did, is probably a critical benchmark to meet.

And Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, who was once a lobbyist for the charter school cartel, has proposed changes to the law to make it easier for them to operate. So has Rep. Seth McKeel of Lakeland, who is a director of (surprise) the Mc-Keel Academy charter schools in Polk County.

You might suspect there's something hinky going on here with all these folks with various family and financial ties to the charter school consortium pimping legislation that will benefit them directly or help friends and family members who are in the business.

After all, if Legg had been a banker who introduced a bill that would enhance his bank's business, the outcry over the conflict of interest would be cacophonous. But this is about charter schools helping to educate the little girls and boys. This is about the jewel of education, isn't it?

This is about the kiddos about as much as Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme was about astute financial planning.

The actions of Legg, Thrasher, Fresen, McKeel and others are perfectly acceptable in Tallahassee, because the state's ethics laws have fewer teeth in them than hockey's Bobby Hull.

According to the oxymoronically dubbed state Ethics Commission, voting on something that may accrue to the benefit of a family member "does not rise to a voting conflict of interest." Who wrote this fiddle-faddle? The recently late Kim Jong Il?

With all the sincerity of Jack the Ripper apologizing for the mess he left behind, Legg insisted he simply wants to improve the quality of education. If that means voting to change a law that saved his school thousands of dollars in fees, or promoting legislation that funneled construction money to charter schools, including his, it's merely part of the sacrifices diligent public servants must make.

You might be thinking this is sort of a case of elected officials voting to legally bribe themselves. But in Tallahassee, where a scruple is harder to find than a unicorn, an ethics violation is an ethics violation only if the ruling junta says so.

And these folks have taken a vow of omerta the envy of the Gambino family.

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