Florida Politics

Charter schools to parents: Write to Gov. Scott, get volunteer hours

A screengrab of an “alert” posted on the homepage of Mater Academy Lakes High School, which offers parents five hours’ credit toward their volunteer hours at the school, if they write a letter to Gov. Rick Scott in support of HB 7069.
A screengrab of an “alert” posted on the homepage of Mater Academy Lakes High School, which offers parents five hours’ credit toward their volunteer hours at the school, if they write a letter to Gov. Rick Scott in support of HB 7069.

Some school choice advocates in South Florida are going so far as to offer incentives to parents in order to amplify the perception of public support for a controversial K-12 public schools bill that many are urging Gov. Rick Scott to veto.

At least two privately managed charter schools in Hialeah — Mater Academy Lakes High School and City of Hialeah Educational Academy — publicly advertised this week that they would give parents five hours’ credit toward their “encouraged” volunteer hours at the school, so long as they wrote a letter or otherwise urged Gov. Rick Scott to sign HB 7069.

“It is IMPERATIVE that the Governor, and the rest of the State of Florida, see what a POSITIVE DEMAND there is for this education bill,” read an alert on the homepage of Mater Academy Lakes’ website Thursday evening. “This is the strongest legislation supporting the charter school movement since charters were first established in Florida 20 years ago.”

“We need all of our Bear Family to show their support for HB 7069 and encourage your friends, family and children to get involved as well,” the message continued.

A similar alert was blasted across the City of Hialeah Educational Academy’s website, too, offering the same volunteer-hour credit to parents if they attended a pro-HB 7069 event at the school this past Wednesday or Thursday.

The school also sent email and text alerts to its parents asking them to “use all realms of social media to advocate for House Bill 7069!”

MORE: “Floridians are weighing in on public schools bill. Most want a veto.”

Mater Academy Lakes Principal Rene Rovirosa dismissed criticism that his school’s efforts to drum up support for the bill were akin to bribing parents. He argued students were free to express their views on either side of the issue, and it was a social studies lesson for the students.

“We explained the good side and the bad side,” Rovirosa said.

Carlos Alvarez, principal at City of Hialeah Educational Academy, did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday morning.

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats said offering parents volunteer hours and encouraging students to write letters crosses a line.

“It’s certainly disgusting, to say the least, that these institutions would utilize their influence to try to get students to be involved in something that is very political — and parents for the same reason,” she said. “For an educational institution to try to manipulate their circumstances and make children a part of that is very sad.”

The two Hialeah charter schools’ advocacy and other promotional efforts by influential school choice organizations come in the wake of a groundswell of opposition from traditional public school supporters since lawmakers passed HB 7069 on May 8.

The nearly 10,000 phone calls, emails, letters and individual petition signatures received by Gov. Rick Scott were 3-to-1 against the bill, as of information provided Thursday evening. In contrast to the charters, there is no evidence that traditional public school advocates have offered incentives to boost support for their veto campaign.

At a press conference Friday on statewide job numbers at the offices of LATAM Airlines in Miami, Scott said he had not yet heard that Mater Academy Lakes and City of Hialeah Educational Academy were offering parents an incentive in exchange for letters supporting the schools bill.

“I was not informed somebody was doing it that way, but if people want to get involved, get involved,” said Scott, who added that he encourages constituents to engage with elected officials.

Charter schools and their operators — which are sometimes for-profit companies — have a lot to gain by HB 7069 becoming law.

The legislation further relaxes regulations on the privately managed schools, such as by exempting them from local zoning regulations under some circumstances and by ensuring they get a cut of school districts’ local tax revenue that’s earmarked for school construction.

One safeguard that would’ve prevented charters from profiting off such financial aid, funded by taxpayers, was abruptly left out of the final version of HB 7069 despite having support during session. It would have cut off capital funding to charters whose properties are owned by or rented from private business.

MORE: “Stop charter schools from profiting off taxpayers? Nope, deal kills proposed ban”

The bill’s premiere feature helps charters, too. The new $140 million “Schools of Hope” program is mostly an incentive for specialized charter schools to set up in low-income areas and essentially compete with struggling traditional public schools.

Both Mater Academy Lakes and the Hialeah Educational Academy are managed by Academica, a for-profit company that is Florida’s largest charter school operator and has several ties to current and former influential Republican lawmakers.

The Herald/Times identified at least three other Academica schools — Somerset Academy East, Gibson Charter School and Mater Academy at Mount Sinai — that were also promoting HB 7069, although those schools encouraged parental support without the volunteer hour incentive.

In their “urgent” messages to parents, the schools used near identical wording and several also listed aspects of the bill charter advocates particularly like — such as that “this bill will increase funding for charter schools” and it “streamlines the teaching certificate process ... to help reduce teacher shortages.” (Some aspects of the legislation actually eliminate the requirement that some charter school teachers be certified at all.)

Each of the “alerts” also linked to a pro-HB 7069 petition on Change.org set up by The A.C.E. Foundation, an organization that supports charter schools and is closely linked to Academica. Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — who voted in favor of HB 7069 — is the foundation’s development director.

“This is the first I hear of it,” Flores told the Herald Friday. “My work at ACE is limited to helping with the charitable programs we provide to students such as after-school tutoring and free summer camps.”

Lynn Norman-Teck, the executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, who spoke to the Miami Herald on the charter schools’ behalf, also defended the advocacy efforts as promoting civic engagement. She said many parents would likely have been upset if the charter schools hadn’t warned them about the bill’s potential impacts.

“These are parents that are super involved,” she said. “Parents will say: ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ So it is a fine line.”

“It is volunteer,” she added. “No one is telling them, ‘You have to do this.’”

At Mater Academy Lakes, Rovirosa said students were encouraged to write letters to Scott as part of a civics lesson but weren’t directed whether to support or oppose the bill. On Monday, Mater Academy Lakes students on a previously scheduled college tour to Tallahassee will deliver the letters to the governor’s office.

Charter schools aren’t the only ones rallying to turn the tide of public opposition that’s against the bill.

Americans for Prosperity, which is funded in part by the Koch brothers and has supported school choice legislation, has organized a “phone bank for the kids” on Saturday in Miami to promote the bill. “Lunch will be provided,” an advertisement for the event said.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, of Lighthouse Point, slammed the AFP event, via Twitter, by calling it a “manipulation of parents who simply love their kids and want them to succeed. Sad. #winatallcosts”

Meanwhile, the coordinated opposition from county school superintendents, almost all elected school boards, and parent groups and teachers unions has trickled out over the past 10 days, as they seek to keep momentum.

School administrators, teachers and many parents of traditional public school students want Scott to veto both HB 7069 and the main budget act — which contains $23.7 billion in base K-12 public school spending that includes an increase of only 0.34 percent per student over this year.

Critics oppose the bill for myriad reasons — first for its contents, which they say would diminish traditional public schools in favor of privately managed charters, such as in the case of “Schools of Hope.”

And they also dislike the way the 278-page bill was crafted in secret by House Republicans with no opportunity for public input and no chance for lawmakers to amend it before the May 8 vote on the 2017-18 budget package.

Herald staff writer Chabeli Herrera contributed.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark