Just when it looked like Florida schools would be freed from state requirements to hire private tutoring companies, a state senator is making a late push to mandate funding through a fast-tracked virtual learning bill.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, this morning proposed an amendment to an amendment of HB 7029 that would require districts to pay 8 percent of roughly $1 billion in federal education money to private tutoring contractors. That would amount to roughly $80 million for a for-profit tutoring industry that has lobbied feverishly to keep funding requirements in state law.
The move comes the morning after an effort to preserve tutoring requirements through the budget process failed. If Flores' amendment doesn't pass, the existing mandate for funding "supplemental educational services" will expire and school districts will have power over about $100 million in federal funding for the first time in a decade.
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Before last week, the bill Flores is trying to amend seemed destined to become law as a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford.
The measure, sponsored in the House by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would enable students to enroll in virtual schools based in other counties and allow out-of-state digital learning companies a shot at a larger cut of state funding.
When the bill suddenly slowed down in the Senate, observers wondered what the hold up was. The sponsor in the upper chamber, Sen. Jeff Brandes, told a Herald/Times reporter he was working on amendments.
Asked this afternoon why she had filed the amendment, Flores walked in the opposite direction of a Times/Herald reporter. "I have to go eat lunch," she said.
During the budget discussions late last month, the House pushed for making subsidized tutoring optional. The Senate wanted to keep requirements for funding tutoring on the books.
As the talks progressed, tutoring had a strong backer in Flores, who urged her colleagues to keep the funding requirement.
"SES provides a very important service to low-income, minority students who need help beyond the regular school hours," Flores told the Times/Herald. "But there also needs to be strong accountability measures to ensure that only quality providers are providing the service."
Flores is CEO of Doral College, Inc., a non-profit charter school and private college company started by Fernando Zulueta and his wife, Magdalena Fresen, in 2001.
Zulueta also founded another charter school company, Mater Academy, Inc., which now doubles as a state-approved tutoring contractor. Last school year, Mater earned $380,000 tutoring in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Today Zulueta runs a for-profit management company, Academica Corp., that operates both charter school businesses on a contract basis.
Flores told the Times/Herald she had no idea that Mater runs a tutoring firm, and she added that she didn't consider it a conflict of interest.
"It didn't come from them," she said of her support for tutoring. "This is coming from Anitere Flores."
-- MICHAEL LAFORGIA AND KATHLEEN McGRORY