In the looming battle for public education dollars, Jon Hage has launched a preemptive 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 in a fierce fight in Tallahasse: 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’ union 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 to The Herald.
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 already 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 kids enrolled in Florida public schools take part.