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
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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