Some people like rules. They keep life simple. Others think rules just get in the way of getting things done. Floridians have a reputation for avoiding as many rules as possible except for their traditional public schools. They are rule bound, and some parents rebel. There is an escape clause called ‘school choice’. For charters and private schools the rules are bent or removed.
Charters are supposed to save money, and theyprovide a way for private businesses to make money, lots of it. The money comes from the state or from corporate tax rebates. It is big money, about half of the State’s general fund.
One wonders if controls on ethics and conflict of interest are sufficiently strong to protect the public interest in education? The buzz about Florida is that there is more self-interest than public interest than in any other state. Are such allegations warranted?
Information is not difficult to find. The Center for Public Integrity ranked states on a corruption index in 2012. Florida received a total grade of ‘C-‘ which was better than that of many states. Internal auditing rules received an ‘A’, but ethics enforcement agencies rated an ‘F’. It sounds like we have rules but we bend and break them.
In 2013, the legislature took on the ethics issues. A bill was passed that ‘went in the right direction’ and created more ways to file complaints and gave the Commission on Ethics more power to collect fines. Board members of charter schools are now covered. The application of ethics laws to legislators required them to report conflicts in which they would receive a special ‘private gain or loss’ but the term was defined broadly. Financial gain was not personal if it included a class of interest, such as charter school owners. Conflict of interest violations depended on factors such as the size of the class, and the variation in personal benefits, etc. Is this the ‘It’s OK, everyone’s doing it’ culture?
Integrity Florida applauded the 2013 partial reforms and encouraged the legislature to complete the job. Stronger penalties are needed along with greater transparency and broader coverage of the rules. The financial penalties currently do not hurt much. At least now the Commission of Ethics can collect them; they used to just be ignored. Two House members were cited for conflict of interest as heads of important education committees in the House, Erik Fresen and Marlene O’Toole. Maybe Marlene O’Toole will have to pay $1500 for directing about $15 million to the education foundation where she works. Shouldn’t be a problem for her. Removing legislators from chairing their committees would be a greater deterrent.
Whether or not the Code of Ethics for public officials is effective is debatable. The New York Times published a story (2013) about the arrests of three mayors of Florida cities. Imbedded in the article were statistics from the Department of Justice that once again has Florida in the lead. This time, there were more convictions (781) of public officials reported in Florida from 2000-2010 than in any other state. Florida was called a “hot house of corruption”.
If the legislature pushes the limits on ethics, the same culture is likely to expand to the general public as laws are implemented. Big money now drives the electoral process, and spending for education is big money. Who is looking out for the public good i.e. the children’s educational interest? The Miami Herald ran a series called Cashing in on Kids. They argue that no one is looking at charter school managers and how they spend money. It is similar to the culture in the legislature, not much happens if you break the rules–unless you get too greedy. This is not a new problem. It is a system problem of long standing.
The 2013 conflict of rules legislation was the first in 30 years. Some legislative leaders are justifiably proud that some progress was made. Let’s hope that the job will be finished before another thirty years go by. This time, the Commission on Ethics needs teeth to make its presence known. The long term benefit will accrue when charter oversight is strengthened. Rules without consequences do not do much. In the next post, how to improve charter oversight will be summarized.