Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Lawmakers battle behind the scenes for tutoring money

TALLAHASSEE — As the legislative session neared an end this month, state Rep. Erik Fresen found himself in an awkward position.

Just last year, Fresen helped keep a torrent of public money flowing to private tutoring firms.

But after revelations of fraud and lax oversight turned the program into a black eye for education reform, his new orders from House leadership were clear: End subsidized tutoring, and do it now.

Sen. Anitere Flores was ready to push back.

A friendly face from the upper chamber, Flores had much in common with Fresen. Both are Republicans from Miami. And both had backed subsidized tutoring without disclosing ties to the industry.

At stake: $100 million in federal education money — cash that could, depending on how things played out, remain committed to private tutoring or be freed up for districts to spend as they liked.

As the session entered its final week, it was far from certain where the money would go.

• • •

A year earlier, tutoring's fate was equally undecided — until Fresen stepped in.

In the last days of the 2012 session, records show, Fresen added subsidized tutoring to an essential education bill that came out of his subcommittee. It led to a compromise negotiated by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Private tutoring firms would again get a cut of the money.

Fresen voted for the proposal, but records show he didn't disclose ties to the tutoring industry.

In 1998, Fresen's brother-in-law, Fernando Zulueta, and sister, Magdalena Fresen, started a charter school firm that now doubles as a subsidized tutoring provider.

Last year, the business, Mater Academy Inc., won $380,000 in tutoring contracts from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

In an interview with the Times/Herald on Wednesday, Fresen downplayed his role in securing funding for the industry in 2012. He said he simply was following his committee's plan when he amended a bill to include money for subsidized tutoring.

Fresen said he saw no need to disclose his family connection because his sister and brother-in-law's firm no longer controlled the charter school they founded more than a decade ago. Instead they were managing it on a contract basis, he said.

The school's independent board, he said, made its own decision to become a tutoring vendor, just as it made the decision to hire his family's management company.

He added that the only reason the school began tutoring "is because they were being forced to hire fly-by-night providers. At no point was it a profit-maker for Mater."

He said the school opposed subsidized tutoring and would shut down its tutoring arm as soon as the program died.

Flores, too, voted for the proposal last year but didn't disclose a connection: She works as CEO of Doral College Inc., a nonprofit charter school and private college company founded in 2001 — by Zulueta and Magdalena Fresen. And, like Mater, Doral too is now run by Zulueta's management company.

The board that hired Flores in 2011 included business associates of Zulueta's. It now includes at least one person who has lobbied for him.

In a statement to the Times/Herald, Flores defended her record on subsidized tutoring, saying she supports it because it helps impoverished, minority children.

"To imply that the reason for my support is in any way connected to my employment is ridiculous and baseless," Flores said in the statement. "This is an issue that has been important to me since I was first elected because it directly affects the children in my district."

Trouble for tutoring

When the bill passed last year, it marked a hard-won victory in a nationwide campaign by the tutoring industry to keep the tax dollars flowing.

Then something unexpected happened.

In a series of stories published in February, the Tampa Bay Times showed that the poorly regulated program had paid criminals to run tutoring firms. It also allowed operators accused of fraud to continue doing business with districts, the Times reported.

The stories galvanized leaders of Florida school districts, who long had viewed the mandated funding as an unwelcome intrusion.

With the next session approaching, they readied for the biggest fight yet over subsidized tutoring.

First blow, stalemate

It started quietly, gaining momentum as April turned into May.

School districts landed the first blow when Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, added an amendment to an education bill that would make tutoring optional.

But the move got no traction in the Senate, and it created an opening to push the fight into the budgeting process. There, the matter could be hashed out in private, between a Senate committee headed by Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and a House committee headed by Fresen.

More wrangling ensued. The Senate, urged on by Flores, pushed to keep requirements to fund tutoring. Fresen took up the House position to do away with them.

A week later, when lawmakers emerged from the series of closed-door budget meetings, they still hadn't reached a deal.

Less than a week remained before the end of the session.

Dramatic finish

The fight over tutoring ended four days later, in a dramatic showdown on the Senate floor.

In a move that closely mirrored Fresen's from the year before, Flores proposed adding subsidized tutoring to an unrelated virtual education bill. It was a priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford and a bill that was almost certain to pass.

Then, after questions from a Times/Herald reporter, Flores withdrew the proposal. Another Miami-Dade Republican, Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, offered an identical amendment in her place.

The Senate's sponsor for the virtual education bill, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said later that the flurry of amendments caught him off guard.

"What was going through my head was, 'This is a heck of a thing to be putting on a bill at its second or third reading. This is obviously something that should be vetted by a committee,' " Brandes said.

For the next several minutes, Garcia, Flores and Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, took turns defending the language, which called for about $80 million in federal education money for private tutoring firms.

"At the end of the day, the ones who benefit from this are the minority students," Garcia said.

But this time, the Senate turned on tutoring.

Montford, who had brokered the tutoring deal last year, led the charge.

"What's happening this year, we are having students who are not being served because I was a part last year of the compromise," Montford said. "And I can't stand here today and vote for something, and feel tomorrow like I do today."

Minutes later, they put it to a voice vote.

The amendment, and an industry's hopes for the coming year, died in a chorus of nos.

When it was over, Fresen said, he felt like the Legislature had made the right decision.

After all, subsidized tutoring "was like the wild, wild West," he said, and it was time somebody stepped in and restored order.

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