Florida’s 652 charters run the gamut from small ‘mom and pop’ charters to large chains organized by for-profit management companies. Some serve children and districts well. Many others tell different stories. They involve not only political ideology but also religion, dark money networks, billionaires, and of course, self-interest.
The Erika Donalds version of the charter story starts simply. A small group of members seceded from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) in 2015 to form the Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM). Erika Donalds, a member of the Collier County school board and wife of Florida Representative Byron Donalds, fronts this coalition, but the political network behind it is extensive. It goes all the way to our nation’s capital.
About 14 of the 50 alternative school board association members have been publicly identified, including:
• Rebecca Negron, who has just been defeated for a seat on the Martin County school board even though her supporters raised over $250,000 to unsuccessfully attack her opponent. She is the wife of Senate President Joe Negron. Senator Negron wrote the initial legislation for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program to give corporate taxes to private schools.
Some FCSBM members also have strong dark money ties to national conservative political advocacy groups.
• Erika Donalds openly displays the Americans for Prosperity logo on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. This is a tea party group supported by the Koch brothers and others.
• In the March 29, 2018 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Speaker of the Florida House Richard Corcoran’s wife Ann, who operates her own charter school, is identified.
• Shawn Frost, who is Chair of the Indian River school board, is part of this coalition. He announced in the Indian River Guardian that he expects to be appointed to the Florida State Board of Education. Frost reported campaign contributions from Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education. In 2014, Frost received $20,000 in campaign contributions from the American Federation of Children run by Betsy DeVos. Frost lives in Vero Beach, but maintains a room in his father’s house in Indian River to meet the residence requirements for being on the school board. He is also the head of MVP Strategy and Policy which specializes in consulting for school board races.
• A Duval School Board member Scott Shine has reportedly joined the FCSBM. He withdrew from his 2018 reelection campaign due to ‘personal attacks’.
• Sarasota school board members Erik Robinson, a former Republican Party Chairman and Bridgit Ziegler are listed members. Ziegler’s campaign reported $45,000 in donations from the out of state Phoenix Media LLC. According to the Herald Tribune, the money was funneled through a PAC run by fellow board member Erik Robinson, who is often called ‘The Prince of Dark Money’.
Some FCSBM members are collaborating to build a Florida chain of Classical Academy Charters. This isn’t just any group of charter schools. They are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. The College, located in Michigan, has a long religious/conservative/libertarian agenda. The DeVos immediate family and close business associates have several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundations fund the initiative. There are 17 of these charters nationwide. In Florida, there are four: Mason in Naples, Pineapple Cove in Palm Bay, St. Johns in Fleming Island, and the newly formed Pineapple Cove in West Melbourne. Donalds and her husband have been active with the Mason Classical Academy in Collier County. Donalds is currently seeking to add a Classical Academy in Martin County where Rebecca Negron was running for school board.
Erika Donalds has more than running a charter school on her mind. She was appointed by the governor to the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) which is convened every twenty years to consider proposals to amend the constitution. Donalds is a strategist to divide the Florida public schools into two separate systems, one for ‘independent schools’ and one for public schools established by locally elected school boards. Essentially, it would allow one system for charters and private schools receiving tax credit scholarships and one for traditional public schools.
This year the CRC was plagued with ‘log rolling’. It is a technique to bundle dissimilar proposals into one law. There is a spate of these ‘logs’ projected to be on the November ballot. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against them, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the League of Women Voters was correct in its opposition to at least one. This proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida constitution must be withdrawn from the November ballot. How this amendment came to be is a story in itself.
Amendment 8 combines three separate proposals: school board term limits, civics literacy and a clause stating that school boards are only responsible for schools they create. This third proposal is the heart of the amendment. The title for the amendment, however, is: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools”. Voters might be in favor of one part of the combined proposals but opposed to another. It was a ‘take it or leave it’ strategy. The wording, even the title was intended to confuse voters. Term limits and civics education may seem innocuous, but they are not.
Erika Donalds is also the Florida sponsor for the US Term Limits organization. This group has a well-documented conservative political agenda that targets school boards to create more opportunities to influence policy. The Koch brothers founded the US Term Limits group. The civics course requirement proposed by CRC member Gaetz, the former President of the Florida Senate, made no sense. Civics was already required by the Florida Department of Education. Former Governor Bob Graham, long a champion of civics education, stated that not only is Amendment 8 a hodge podge, it is not even good for civics education. The CATO Institute has a major focus on civics education and provides free civics material to k12 schools. Its message is clear. According to the Huffington Post, the CATO group states: “The minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Government assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty”.
The third component of Amendment 8 was to remove local school board control over the authorization of new charter schools. This too represented the national move to privatize our schools by creating charters and funding vouchers to private schools. In the proposed Amendment 8, however, the schools were called ‘independent’, not charter schools. Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart stated that removing local school board control over the establishment of charter schools goes too far. CRC member Patricia Levesque, CEO of Jeb Bush’s education foundation however, supported the amendment as did Marva Johnson, the President of the State Board of Education.
Erika Donalds formed a Political Action Committee called ‘8 is Great’ to sway voters to support Amendment 8. According to the Vero Communique, Howard Rich, a wealthy New York real estate investor, invested $100,000 in the ‘8 is Great’ PAC. Rich serves on the Board of the CATO institute which was founded by the Koch brothers. David Koch ran for Vice President of the U.S. in 1980 on a platform opposing social security, the FBI, the CIA and pubic schools. The billionaire Koch brothers have a long and intensive interest in promoting school choice through their Americans for Prosperity organization. They are concentrating on Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Their presence takes many forms. Watch for everything from donations to school board races, charter and voucher expansion efforts and state election campaigns. John Kirtley, the founder of Step Up for Children was a major donor. Step Up is the agency that administers a billion dollars for the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and Duval School Board member Scott Shine have joined the PAC according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Recognizing that term limits and civics education are popular among many voters, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wells submitted a brief to the Florida League of Women Voters in which he stated: “This change from local county school board control…is hidden by packaging the change with what are thought to be attractive proposals for term limits and civics education.” These schools were planned to be charter schools but the word ‘independent’ was substituted for the word ‘charter’.
There is a watchdog coalition of about 20 public interest groups, headed by the League, to follow and evaluate CRC proposed amendments. Amendment 8 was identified early by the coalition as part of a package of amendments intended to seize local control from city and county governments. The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined forces to file a lawsuit against Amendment 8 asking that Amendment 8 be removed from the November ballot. The suit claimed that the amendment was deliberately vague and intended to confuse the public. The circuit court in Tallahassee agreed. The State filed an appeal.
The Appellate Court immediately referred the case to the Florida Supreme Court saying, “The case involves a question of great public importance and requires immediate resolution by the Supreme Court”. The vagueness of the amendment language and its misleading title: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools” was the basis for the justices’ 4 to 3 ruling. The decision puts a roadblock in the effort to create an alternative charter school system. Some legislators will no doubt continue to push proposals to remove any local school board control of charter schools. In reality, local public schools have very limited responsibility to oversee charters, but they and the local press can shine a spotlight on what is at stake.
After sixteen years of choice, it is clear that choice divides communities, segregates children, and dissipates funding without making any appreciable improvement in student achievement. The Supreme Court has another case before it now ‘Citizens for Strong Schools’ that contends that Florida’s choice policy has failed to support the quality education for all children that the Florida constitution requires. The hearing is set. The future of our public school system will depend on the ruling from the bench.