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  1. Florida Politics

Charter school companies, online learning outfits try to wield influence in Tallahassee

Published Oct. 22, 2012

In the looming battle for public education dollars, Jon Hage has launched a pre-emptive strike.

His school management company, Charter Schools USA, has doled out more than $205,000 in contributions to political candidates and organizations this election cycle, state records show. That's more than triple what the Fort Lauderdale-based company spent on political campaigns in 2010, and seven times what it spent in 2008.

"If we don't support our friends in Tallahassee, they are left out there to take the enemy's bullet," Hage said.

For-profit education companies are becoming serious players in lobbying the Florida Legislature. In the current election cycle, charter school companies, school management firms, online learning outfits and for-profit colleges have lavished more than $1.8 million to statehouse candidates, electioneering organizations and political parties, according to a Miami Herald review of Florida campaign finance data. Most of the money went to Republicans, whose support of charter schools, vouchers, online education and private colleges has put public education dollars in private-sector pockets.

Some observers say the big dollars foreshadow the next chapter of a fierce fight in Tallahassee: the privatization of public education.

"Education battles are starting to resemble private-industry battles," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat. "There are a lot of players poised to make a lot of money."

Historically, the teachers' union has been the political Goliath of the education world. That's still true. National, state and local teachers' unions shelled out about $3.2 million on statehouse races and political committees in Florida this season, records show, with most of the money going to Democratic candidates and causes.

This season's top private contributors included Academica Management, a Miami-based charter school company, and its construction arm, School Development LLC. The companies and their high-level executives gave more than $220,000 in the current election cycle, including $60,000 in contributions to the Republican Party of Florida.

Academica CEO Fernando Zulueta said his company "supports candidates who support the right of parents to choose the best education for their children."

"Proliferating that message is not inexpensive and requires an investment in time and resources," he wrote in a statement.

Thousands of dollars also came in from education companies in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kansas.

An Arizona-based corporation called Apollo Group spent $95,000 on Florida races and political committees, state records show. Apollo owns the for-profit University of Phoenix and has dabbled in online high schools.

Spokesman Richard Castellano would not say why the company was making a targeted investment in Florida, or why it gave $15,000 to a political committee aligned with Gov. Rick Scott. The company was one of several that declined to be interviewed about their campaign contributions.

Tom Cerra, who lobbies for the Miami-Dade school system, said the for-profit companies are positioning themselves to push through an ambitious agenda.

Florida allows charter schools, which receive public dollars, but are run by private management companies, and provides a limited number of school vouchers to low-income children and children who have disabilities. The programs are growing. About 9 percent of children enrolled in Florida public schools take part.

Next year's legislative session provides another opportunity to make Florida schools even friendlier to private interests.

The charter-school lobby will fight for a share of the lucrative construction dollars allocated to traditional school districts, something it failed to accomplish last year.

Advocates may also try to change the law that says only local school districts can approve new charter schools, with the goal of letting nonprofit organizations or a state commission authorize schools, too. Charter schools often complain they don't get a fair shake from school districts, which would rather keep students — and the $6,000 in state funding attached to each one — in the traditional school system.

Another high priority: a bill known as the parent trigger, which would let parents convert low-performing traditional schools into charter schools.

Virtual-school outfits have a different agenda that would build on past successes. In 2011, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring all high-school students to take at least one online course. The bill also opened the door to full-time virtual schooling for elementary-aged kids, and allowed for the creation of virtual charter schools.

For-profit colleges, meanwhile, want to protect the $2.3 million in publicly funded scholarships available for their students.

By and large, Republican candidates and the Republican Party of Florida have been the beneficiaries of the education firms' contributions. More than 90 percent of the dollars designated for political parties went to the GOP. And Republican candidates took in about 85 percent of the contributions made to individuals.

Some checks went to Democrats. Hage, of Charter Schools USA, made contributions to Ron Saunders and Victoria Siplin, two Democratic supporters of school choice who lost their bids for state Senate in the August primary. He also made a $100,000 contribution to a political committee that supports some Democrats.

Education company chiefs contend their dollars are needed to offset campaign contributions from the teachers' unions, which have fought against the proliferation of virtual and charter schools, and have been longtime supporters of the Democratic Party.

The Florida Education Association spent about $1 million on statehouse races, including contributions to political campaigns and committees, director of public policy advocacy Jeff Wright said. It spent another $1 million to oppose a constitutional amendment that could allow private religious schools to receive state funding.

But Wright called that sum "an insignificant amount compared to what we're up against."

Former state Rep. Ralph Arza, a Miami Republican who lobbies for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, did not deny that charter schools and other education entities have become more involved in the legislative process.

"For a long time, if you were on an education committee, you would struggle to raise money," he said. "That is changing."

But Arza said contributions from education companies are still far less than those coming in from the health care and insurance industries.

"Does it guarantee anybody anything by making these donations? No," he said.

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