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Critics say Florida lawmakers are too cozy with charter schools

LAND O'LAKES — State Rep. John Legg strode up to the podium to pitch the Pasco County School Board.

His charter school, Dayspring Academy in New Port Richey, wanted to grant its prekindergarten students automatic entry into the next level without having to go through a lottery. The popular, A-rated school has a long waiting list, and state law required charter schools to randomly select students if too many apply.

Legg, the school's founder and business administrator, wanted permission to bypass that rule.

Some parents complained. Board members, worried about setting precedent, refused.

Legg barely blinked.

"If you deny it, that's your prerogative," he told the board. "I'm not concerned about it at the end of the day because . . . I'm confident that the (Department of Education) and other folks are looking into this issue this year, because there's federal money and state money . . . that is going to be attached to this type of program. You are probably going to be back revisiting this by the end of this year."

That was March. By May, the Florida Legislature had changed the law to permit exactly what Legg — the Florida House's second in command — had asked the Pasco School Board for.

The number of charter schools is exploding across the country, with Florida leading the way. And the relationships that some state lawmakers have with them are raising hackles, especially as they play key roles in making it easier for charters to operate here.

"There's a growing frustration with elected leaders that the code of ethics appears to apply to everyone but themselves," said Lynne Webb, teachers union president in Legg's home county. "I liken it to insider trading."

Such criticisms have haunted some key Florida lawmakers.

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, chairman of the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee, faced ethics charges this year after voting for a bill giving "high performing" charter schools an easier path to expansion. He was accused of failing to disclose his family's involvement in charter operator Academica, where his sister is vice president.

Though absolved by the state Ethics Commission, Fresen to many personified the cozy ties, particularly in contrast with Tampa Democratic Rep. Betty Reed.

She abstained from voting on the same bill because her daughter is a charter school principal.

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, the Senate majority whip, got her share of attention when she won a job leading Academica's new college-level school shortly after pushing through a bill allowing virtual charter schools into the state. Academica proposed such schools across Florida soon after.

Pasco County Republican Rep. Will Weatherford, the House speaker-designate, caught flak for submitting a new charter school application with the wife of fellow Rep. Richard Corcoran soon after the lawmakers voted for the bill that snared Fresen. The Pasco School Board rejected their proposal.

Sen. John Thrasher, a one-time charter school lobbyist, has proposed charter school law changes. Rep. Seth McKeel, a director of the McKeel Academy charters in Polk County, has voted for such laws.

The lawmakers have friends inside the business pushing for easier access, including former Rep. Ralph Arza, now with the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools; former Education Commissioner Jim Horne, now chairman of the Florida Charter School Alliance; and former Rep. Frank Atkisson, now business director for Mavericks in Education, a charter firm run by Vice President Joe Biden's brother.

The support extends into the executive branch, as well.

Gov. Rick Scott included more charter than traditional school executives on his education transition team. He signed off on the bills expanding charters in Florida and also on a budget that funneled state school construction funding to charters.

The Education Department has shared in the enthusiasm, too, creating a $30 million fund for charter startups with the backing of a venture group supported by conservative donors such as the Walton and the Dell foundations.

Such a confluence of forces has brought skeptics to conclude the deck is heavily stacked in favor of charter schools.

• • •

Legg distanced himself from the money game, saying he's one of the early charter school players, a true believer in competition and choice in education.

A certified middle school social studies teacher, he stressed that he started Dayspring Academy while a House aide to then-Rep. Heather Fiorentino and never hid his role or his passion for education reform during his campaigns.

He does not own the independent, nonprofit school and earns a $48,412 salary. His wife, Suzanne, makes $62,955 as the school's director.

Dayspring Academy has received the state's new "high performing" rating, allowing it to grow and have a longer contract.

Legg said his legislative efforts on behalf of charter schools weren't for personal gain or for the benefit of the school and its backers.

"My only interest is education — public education — and ensuring that kids get quality access," Legg said.

Still, he acknowledges that, like his colleagues, he has faced criticism for promoting changes to improve his vocation. "The question has come up a hundred times," he said.

Tallahassee activist Todd Byars filed an ethics complaint against Legg in 2010 accusing the representative of using public office for private gain.

Byars wrote that the lawmaker had a history of promoting charter school legislation while running one. He did not list many specifics, but they are evident in the records of the Pasco school district and the Florida Legislature. For example:

• In 2007, Legg and other Dayspring leaders suggested they should not have to pay the Pasco school district a 5 percent administrative fee (as authorized in law) because the school did not use all the available district-provided services. Told the charge would stand, Legg backed legislation to reduce the fee, saving the school millions after passage.

• During much of his tenure, Legg complained that charter schools deserved more construction funding than the state provided. He pushed to make charter schools eligible for capital funds, and ultimately won with a 2011 budget that poured the majority of the state's school construction money into charters.

Throughout his eight years in the Legislature, Legg has proved a vocal and dependable advocate for charter school law changes — and charter school companies have taken note. Academica, K12 and Charter Schools USA are among those that have supported Legg's campaigns with $500 contributions, even when he faced no opposition.

Since 2008, he has received about $10,000 from charter school firms, executives and lobbyists. Legg has raised more than $108,000 for his 2012 state Senate race.

• • •

Although such connections raise eyebrows, they are permissible.

The state Ethics Commission threw out Byars' complaint, noting that Legg's charter school stood to benefit no more or less than any other in the bills he backed. Simply voting on a measure affecting a class of people that includes a lawmaker or his family members "does not necessarily give rise to a voting conflict of interest," the commission stated.

Even under the most far-reaching ethics legislation up for consideration this session, filed by Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Legg's involvement would fall far short of a conflict.

Dockery's bill, which has gained little traction, would bar lawmakers from participating in or voting on bills "that would inure to his or her special private gain or loss or that he or she knows would inure to the special private gain or loss of his or her relative."

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville agreed that lawmakers should avoid true conflicts of interest. Disclosure is key, he said. But Florida has a citizen legislature, Gaetz continued, and if lawmakers have an expertise it makes sense to take advantage when crafting bills.

"Why have Sen. (Greg) Evers, who is a farmer, voting on health care but bar him from voting on what he knows best?" Gaetz said.

He also cautioned against "selective indignation."

"When Frederica Wilson was in the Senate, there didn't seem to be any moral outrage expressed . . . when she voted to create programs that she benefited from," he said of the longtime Miami-Dade school administrator who often filed legislation on education-related matters.

Wilson is just one of many.

Other lawmakers with public education ties have included Democrats and Republicans alike, including locals such as Republican Heather Fiorentino, who chaired the House education committee while a teacher and then returned to become Pasco superintendent; and Democrat Bill Heller, who worked on higher education issues in the House while a dean at USF St. Petersburg. Some prominent current lawmakers include:

• Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, a teacher, Education Committee ranking Democrat.

• Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, a college instructor, Pre-K-12 Appropriations chairwoman.

• Senate President Mike Haridopolos, University of Florida instructor.

• Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, St. Petersburg College vice president for economic development programs.

• • •

Legg said he frequently offers legislation on behalf of the Pasco school district, too, and not just for charters.

"Should I not help the school district because the school district is the one that holds (Dayspring's) contract?" he said. "Is that a conflict of interest?"

Webb, the union leader, saw the distinction differently. Public schools are a service for all, she said, and their employees hold no personal stake in their operation.

A charter school, she said, is a private enterprise that receives public funds. Big business is there because money is there.

"You could be a principal in a charter school . . . and then be a legislator writing laws that benefit your own enterprise," she said. "It's an exploitation of the system."

Legg rejected any implication that he has an interest beyond the public good.

"My goal in the Legislature is to advocate for public education," he said. "Charter schools are a part of that system."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Another big year for charters?

Florida lawmakers took several steps in 2011 to make it easier to open a charter school in the state and to expand existing ones. They are set to consider more measures to further extend the welcome mat to charter schools in 2012. Among the pending ideas:

Construction funding: Bill would allow school districts to share their capital projects tax revenue with charter schools (HB 903, Adkins).

Another category: Bill would create an entire new class of charters called "family charter academies" (SB 1162, Simmons).

Parent trigger: Proposal would give parents the power to transform their struggling public schools to charter status (Gov. Rick Scott's legislative agenda).



. Fast facts

Dayspring Academy

Opened: 2000-01

Grades: K-8, on two

campuses

Enrollment: 520

Free/Reduced price meals: 41%

Minority rate: 22%

Focus: Arts

School Grade: A

(every year graded)

Critics say Florida lawmakers are too cozy with charter schools 12/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2011 10:39pm]
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