In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Boondoggle? Hey, it’s for the kids

Tallahassee has long resonated with talk about our precious, precious school children. Except lately the allusion has become quite literal.

It’s as if our state legislators have come to regard little school kids as high-value commodities to be doled out to politically connected vendors. Ever larger chunks of public education money gets diverted to for-profit ventures, provided, of course, that these corporations have hired the right lobbyists, made the right campaign contributions or put the right state legislator on the payroll.

The pretext, of course, is school reform. All this public money has been transferred to private companies to inject competition and accountability and market efficiencies into Florida education.

We want to believe that these rather pricy schemes are all about improving public education. The problem, like so much else in Florida politics, is that the state’s school reform movement is so rife with influence peddling.

Industry lobbyists pushed through a bill in the final days of the 2013 legislative session on behalf of private online education providers. The measure eased the vetting process for online vendors and allowed out-of-state firms to jump into the game while simultaneously cutting back funding for the public, state-run Florida Virtual School.

What made this bill so disconcerting is that it was crafted just a few months after the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit provider of online courses, had been using teachers in courses for which they weren’t certified and then falsified class records to indicate otherwise. State law requires certification, but what the heck.

In one notorious instance, a K12 supervisor asked a certified teacher in Seminole County to sign off on a roster of 100 students who had completed a virtual course. But the teacher, Amy Capelle, recognized just seven names on that list. She refused. “I can’t sign off on students who are not my actual students. It is not ethical to submit records to the district that are inaccurate.”

So the K12 supervisor simply signed “Amy Capelle” to the certification document herself.

The investigation also found that K12, which operates in 43 Florida counties, assigns as many as 275 students to a single online class. The public-owned Florida Virtual School, punished by the 2013 Legislature with funding cuts, has a maximum student-teacher ratio of 150 to one.

If this stuff strikes you as a peculiar reaction to scandalous behavior, then you don’t understand how state government works in Tallahassee. The Herald’s Kathleen McGrory reported last week that K12 atoned for its sins last election cycle with $21,000 in campaign contributions to Republicans running for seats in the Legislature and a $25,000 donation to the Republican Party of Florida.

K12 also hired former state education commissioner Jim Horne to lobby for looser rules for private providers and less money for the Florida Virtual School.

Charters school, nominal non-profits often run by for-profit corporations, convinced the 2013 Legislature to allocate $91 million in construction and maintenance money, although charter school facilities are not actually public property. That’s $36 million more than the charters received last year. Maybe it’s all going toward the best interest of school children. Or maybe it’s just going to repay the political debts owed to a very influential private industry.

Another bill to siphon public education money off to private concerns — $80 million to hire private tutoring companies — nearly slithered through the session, despite an investigative report in February by the Tampa Bay Times that found the school districts paid at least $7 million last year to tutoring companies run by people with criminal records. The list of providers included firms run by convicted thieves, drug abusers and at least one rapist. The Times report found 40 instances of fraudulent billing by these sleazy contractors.

The scandal was born out of a law mandating state money for private tutoring passed in 2012 at the behest of Miami state Rep. Erik Fresen, who neglected to disclose that his sister and brother-and-law were major players in the tutoring racket in South Florida. (McGrory reported that their firm scarfed up $380,000 tutoring Miami-Dade and Broward public school kids last year.)

Attempts (one by another conflicted Miami legislator, Sen. Anitere Flores) to keep the public money flowing to private tutoring firms was finally snuffed out in the final days of the session. Perhaps, shame finally trumped the influence peddlers.

Read more Legislature stories from the Miami Herald

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