The Bennetts’ conflict did nothing to alleviate the unease about the charter school movement in Florida, which may be about reform or may be about profit. A Herald investigation by reporters Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen, published in December 2011, summed up their findings in these cautionary sentences: “During the past 15 years, Florida has embarked on a dramatic shift in public education, steering billions in taxpayer dollars from traditional school districts to independently run charter schools. What started as an educational movement has turned into one of the region’s fastest-growing industries, backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians.
“But while charter schools have grown into a $400-million-a-year business in South Florida, receiving about $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student enrolled, they continue to operate with little public oversight. Even when charter schools have been caught violating state laws, school districts have few tools to demand compliance.
“Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords — one and the same, in many cases — and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.”
Speaking of potential conflicts of interest, now we have Tina and Tony.
Not that Bennett did anything during his short tenure as commissioner that would have shocked the collective conscience of the Florida lawmakers. In the spring session, education industry lobbyists pushed a bill through the Legislature to enrich private, online class providers with public money. The measure eased the vetting process for online vendors and allowed out-of-state firms to grab contracts while simultaneously cutting funding for the publicly owned, state-run, not-for-profit Florida Virtual School.
The bill passed despite a finding by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting 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. None of that cheating stuff much mattered after K12 doled out $21,000 in campaign contributions to key Republican state legislators and a $25,000 check to the state Republican Party.
Similar questions have loomed over other instances in Florida’s fire sale of state-owned assets. The move to privatize state prisons has been so larded with corporate political donations and intense lobbying that no one can quite say whether the real goal is to bring market efficiencies to a big clunky bureaucracy or simply to deliver public money to influential corporate entities.
On Saturday, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford has failed to disclose that he was a former director of a Texas contractor that was paid $826,676 from Citizens, Florida’s state-run catastrophic insurance company. Weatherford’s wife, apparently, has replaced him on the company board of directors.
Will Weatherford, technically, may not have had a legal obligation to report the apparent conflict of interest. But this was yet another murky instance of public money going to private contractors with very snuggly ties to state officials.
None of this is to say that Florida’s public schools ought to be immune from accountability. Or perhaps even competition.
But after the scandal around the departing Tony Bennett, someone needs to ask the governor and his allies for a little assurance: Is this really about raising student achievement and improving public education? Or has old-fashioned Florida cronyism gone to school?