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Charter, Voucher, Online Schools Campaigning in Florida

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Charter school, voucher and online education companies poured more than $2 million into this fall's political campaigns, primarily those of Republicans who are again demanding more alternatives to traditional public schools.

But opponents also are digging in, led by the state's largest teachers union, which spent $3.9 million on campaigns.

A deeply ideological battle is expected to unfold at Florida's Capitol in coming months, with vast amounts of taxpayer dollars at stake. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's own political future also may be in play.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, talked of as a future GOP presidential contender, has emerged as chief cheerleader for the industry that flourished during his eight years as Florida governor and still helps finance a nationwide education policy think tank he leads.

"If you believe, like I do, that we need to move this ball down the field far faster, charter schools, vouchers, all sorts of alternatives ... are part of the answer," Bush said in November at his Foundation for Excellence in Education national conference in Washington.

"But once again, there will be massive pushback," warned Bush, a fierce opponent of teachers unions.

In Florida, a blueprint for expanding alternate education on several levels already is being rolled out.

Scott is promoting changes to expand enrollment in charter schools.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has promoted creation of an online university in Florida, a concept now being studied by state university officials, while he also has created a new education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee charged with exploring more charter-, virtual- and home-school options.

The panel's chairman, Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, sponsored legislation last year aimed at letting parents in low-performing schools call for a private-management company to take over. The "parent trigger" bill died on a 20-20 vote in the Senate. But it's likely to resurface this year.

Another benchmark was the selection last month of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who adheres to Bush and Scott's approach to what supporters call parental choice. Bennett is Florida's third education commissioner in two years.

Bennett, though, was turned out in November by voters as Indiana's superintendent of public instruction after clashing with teachers unions over voucher, teacher evaluation and school grading policies, similar to those enacted in Florida during the Bush years.

"Sometimes, it seems that Bush is still the manager of all that's still going on in Florida," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"These policies are part of his political past. But now they also could affect how credible he is in the future," Ford added.

The union and several parent groups say the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that go to charter schools, online efforts and to the state's tax credit scholarship program started under Bush merely redirect money to private and often for-profit interests that could, instead, be used to improve public schools.

But for those promoting more education overhaul, Florida is seen as fertile ground.

Many of Florida's Republican leaders came of political age under Bush. The charter, online and voucher industry also have become a steady source of major campaign dollars, mostly for Republican candidates, according to state records reviewed by The Palm Beach Post.

Charter Schools USA gave $215,450 during the last campaign, most of it going to the Florida Republican Party and the Florida Federation for Children, a political spending committee chaired by John Kirtley, who helped create the state's program that gives corporations tax credits for money they contribute to education vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools, including religious ones.

Scott spoke in December at a dinner honoring the corporate tax-credit scholarship program, which now serves more than 50,000 students and receives $229 million from corporations that otherwise would have gone to state taxes.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford two years ago, before he was House speaker, the credit is set to grow to $286 million next year.

For directing the program, Kirtley's organization, Step Up for Students, receives 3 percent for management fees this year, or almost $6.9 million.

Charter Schools USA, based in Fort Lauderdale, sees a benefit in supporting candidates and committees that share similar values. It operates 48 charter schools in Florida and four other states, including Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach.

"We're really focused on those who support our schools," said Colleen Reynolds, Charter Schools' spokeswoman. "The campaign contributions are just designed to help promote parental choice."

Kirtley's committee spent almost $1.5 million on last fall's campaigns; the Apollo Group, owners of the online University of Phoenix, gave $120,500, mostly to the Florida GOP and leadership committees.

Academica Management, a Miami-based charter school company, spent $100,000 last fall, while its construction unit, School Development LLC, gave $138,000, including $60,000 to the Florida Republican Party.

Also mostly helping Republican candidates were a host of alternate education advocates, including the Florida Association of Public Charter Schools, $35,000; Community Education Partners, $15,000; Daytona Education Associates, $9,500; Connections Academy of Baltimore, Md., $6,500; and online Argosy University of Pittsburgh, which spent $11,900.

The teachers union also is no slouch in political spending. But Ford describes the effort as "mostly defensive."

The Florida Education Association spent almost $1.4 million during the last election season, while its associated Public Education Defense Fund spent another $2.5 million, records show. The bulk of it went to Democratic candidates and allied causes, such as the effort to defeat Amendment 8, which some saw as an attempt to revive vouchers to send students from failed public schools to private schools, including religious ones.

The FEA heavily backed Scott's 2010 opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, and is close to former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who last month switched parties to become a Democrat and is widely seen as a potential Scott re-election rival in two years.

How the debate over alternate education unspools could provide plenty of grist for the upcoming governor's race.

Among the nontraditional education programs, charter schools have been around the longest in Florida -- and could be in line for the sharpest upgrade when Florida lawmakers convene in March.

Charter schools are publicly funded, nonsectarian schools that operate under a contract, or charter, with local school boards. A governing board, appointed or selected, manages them, with many schools focused on accepting low-performing students.

Charter schools are funded like other public schools in Florida -- receiving taxpayer dollars based on the number of full-time students enrolled, but are exempt from many regulations governing public schools, although their students must take the FCAT, which is not required of voucher students.

Scott has called next year for removing enrollment caps from charter schools -- making the already lucrative industry even stronger.

There are 575 charter schools operating in Florida this year -- more than double the number existing a decade ago. Palm Beach County has 41 charter schools, up from 35 last year.

More than 180,000 of Florida's 2.6 million students go to charter schools. In Palm Beach County, 11,000 out of 177,000 county students attend charters.

Advocates say more than 30,000 students are on waiting lists for top charter schools. But many also have come under fire for poor performance, or putting public dollars into fat administrative salaries.

The U.S. Department of Education this fall also cited Florida, California and Arizona for lax monitoring of how charter schools spend their money and whether it complies with federal regulations, criticism disputed by state education officials.

Asked last month whether he felt charter schools and other education alternatives should be on equal footing as traditional schools, Scott gave a nuanced answer.

"I believe we ought to have choice, I believe we ought to have accountability, I believe parents ought to have options and I believe competition works," Scott told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. "I want to make sure traditional public schools do well ... I just want our kids to get a great education." Top donors

The industry promoting charter schools, online education and tax-credit scholarship vouchers spent heavily on Florida campaigns during the 2012 election:

Florida Federation for Children: $1.5 million

Charter Schools USA: $215,450

School Development LLC: $138,000

Apollo Group: $120,500

Academica Management: $100,000

Fla. Association of Public Charter Schools: $35,000

Community Education Partners: $15,000

Argosy University: $11,900

Daytona Education Associates: $9,500

Connections Academy: $6,500

Sources: Florida Division of Elections, Palm Beach Post research

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