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Florida lawmaker championing charter school bill has ties to industry

TALLAHASSEE — House leaders picked state Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., of Hialeah, to shepherd a controversial bill that would revamp the way hundreds of charter schools statewide enter into agreements with local school boards.

Yet, in the eyes of some observers, Diaz has a clear conflict of interest: He has direct ties to the charter school industry.

The Republican lawmaker has been named dean of Doral College, a newly minted private university run by the state's largest for-profit charter school management firm.

Diaz said he was tapped to manage the charter school bill because he understands both sides of the issue. He previously worked for the Miami-Dade school district for 20 years. He is vice-chair of the K-12 Subcommittee, which is part of the House Education Committee.

"I was asked to run (the bill) in a fair and balanced manner and that's what I'm going to do," he said.

But Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, said having Diaz oversee the proposal is another example of the Legislature favoring charter schools.

"They aren't even trying to be subtle anymore," Wright said. "Lawmakers have abandoned any obligation to (traditional) public schools."

A freshman lawmaker, Diaz was named academic dean of Doral College last summer. His salary is $100,000, he said.

He previously earned $76,044 as an assistant principal at George T. Baker Aviation School, a public vocational school near Miami International Airport, according to his financial disclosures.

In his new role, Diaz is working to help Doral College gain accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, he said.

Diaz said he rarely interacts with Academica, the for-profit company that manages Doral College and the affiliated Doral Academy Preparatory School, and that the company had not approached him about sponsoring any proposed legislation.

He also said he had not been pressured by the college's board of directors, many of whom have ties to other South Florida charter schools.

"I'm not carrying water for anyone," he said.

But the proposal Diaz is shepherding could benefit charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Although still in draft form, the bill has been discussed at public workshops. It would require charter school governing boards and school districts to use a new model contract. School districts fear the model contract would inhibit their ability to negotiate with charter school operators, and to reject sub-standard applications.

Lawmakers are also considering adding a second provision districts oppose: requiring traditional public schools to share under-utilized space with charter schools.

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, pointed out that parts of the bill were sponsored last year by other lawmakers, and that this year's proposal will technically come from the committee.

Diaz is just the point person, he said.

"We asked him to do it," Bileca said. "This wasn't something he advocated for. He had the best breath of knowledge."

Diaz isn't the only state lawmaker involved in the education world.

Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is the founder and business administrator of Dayspring Academy in New Port Richey.

The Senate Education Committee's vice chairman, Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, of Tallahassee, is the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

In the lower chamber, state Rep. Erik Fresen, who chairs the House panel that controls the education budget, is the brother-in-law of Academica founder and President Fernando Zulueta.

The president of Doral College is also a state lawmaker: Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

Flores said Diaz was not hired for the job because he holds elected office.

"He rose through the ranks in the public school system, which is impressive, and wanted to try something else," she said. "We are happy to have him at Doral College."

Zulueta said Diaz had "the right credentials and experience for the position."

"One of the primary goals of the college is to enhance the education experience for high school students, and Mr. Diaz's background in K-12 education is beneficial for that," Zulueta said in a statement to the Times/Herald.

Critics acknowledge that Florida has a "citizen Legislature," meaning members are allowed to hold other jobs.

But parent activist Rita Solnet, of Palm Beach County, said it looks like lawmakers' professions and financial interests are driving education policy.

"These conflicts of interest have got to stop," said Solnet, who co-founded the group Parents Across America. "Everybody seems to look the other way, especially when it comes to charter schools."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida lawmaker championing charter school bill has ties to industry 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 7:07pm]
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