Fabiola Santiago

Some of your legislators are profiting at the expense of public education

From left: Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., and Rep. Michael Bileca
From left: Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., and Rep. Michael Bileca

Florida’s broad ethics laws are a joke.

If they weren’t, they would protect Floridians from legislators who profit from the charter-school industry in private life and have been actively involved in pushing — and successfully passing — legislation to fund for-profit private schools at the expense of public education.

Some lawmakers earn a paycheck tied to charter schools.

One of them is Rep. Manny Diaz, the Hialeah Republican who collects a six-figure salary as chief operating officer of the charter Doral College and sits on the Education Committee and the K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Some lawmakers have close relatives who are founders of charter schools.

One of them is the powerful House Speaker, Richard Corcoran, the Land O’Lakes Republican whose wife founded a charter school in Pasco County that stands to benefit from legislation. He was in Miami Wednesday preaching the gospel of charter schools as “building beautiful minds.”

Other lawmakers are founders themselves or have ties to foundations or business entities connected to charter schools.

One of them is Rep. Michael Bileca, the Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Committee and is listed as executive director of the foundation that funds True North Classical Academy, attended by the children of another legislator. Bileca is also a school founder.

These three legislators were chief architects in the passage of a $419 million education bill that takes away millions of dollars from public schools to expand the charter-school industry in Florida at taxpayer expense.

They crafted the most important parts of education bill HB 7069 in secret, acting in possible violation of the open government laws the Legislature is perennially seeking to weaken. There was no debate allowed and educators all across the state were left without a voice in the process.

It’s no wonder it all went down in the dark. It’s a clear conflict of interest for members of the Florida Legislature who have a stake in charter schools to vote to fund and expand them. Their votes weaken the competition: public schools.

This issue has nothing to do with being pro or against school choice. It’s about the abuse of power and possible violations of Florida statutes.

The bill funds, to the tune of $140 million, an expansion of for-profit charter schools in the neighborhoods of D and F public schools, handing over to the private sector not only public money but allowing and encouraging charter schools to take the best students. In other words, instead of pouring those public resources into struggling public schools, the Legislature is turning publicly funded education into two school systems. In the struggling but also vibrant public system where choice already exists through magnets, there’s oversight and regulations that ensure standards. The charter system — which since its inception has demonstrated quite a range, including well-documented flops — is a free-for-all. Private corporations operating the schools make the rules.

And, as if handing them $140 million weren’t enough pillage, school districts will be required to share with charter schools federal Title 1 funds that go to schools with the neediest students, and funds that come from property taxes for school construction.

It’s truly outrageous. It’s not just a giveaway, an example of corporate welfare, but a takeaway from public schools that desperately need state funding. All in the name of benefiting the expansion of an industry from which lawmakers and their families benefit.

In the case of Diaz, he’s constantly steering legislation that benefits charter schools. His vote hurts his competition — public schools — and benefits the industry from which he earns a living. And when it comes to funding Miami Dade College, an institution vital to his constituents, does he go to bat? Nope. He votes to give the college the worst funding cut in its history — almost $14 million. That voters don’t boot Diaz out of office is a shame.

There are many more legislators in both House and Senate with ties to charters. Their votes allowed the bill to pass in both chambers.

How much more brazen and outrageous do these legislators’ ties to charters have to be before ethics rules apply?

The education budget bill is tainted. Gov. Rick Scott should veto it and send the Legislature back to work — not in the backroom, but in the sunshine.

He would be sending the message that he stands with Floridians instead of lawmakers who profit from public service.