High Marks for Political Influence; Companies Lobbying Legislators More on Key Education Issues

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Dixon

TALLAHASSEE | Jim Horne stood at a lectern addressing the House Education Committee. His testimony was relaxed. Like many Capitol regulars, pitching to lawmakers is a low-stress event.

He was at an April meeting in support of a bill that would create a slate of accountability measures for charter schools. The former education commissioner and state senator from Clay County now lobbies for a host of charter school companies and organizations.

Horne, like other supporters, backed the new accountability measures after a now-shuttered Orlando charter school paid its principal $305,000 in salary and bonuses and a $519,000 contract buyout.

Horne did, however, warn of overreach. "We don't want ... to re-reregulate charter schools to stifle the one thing that has made them successful - being innovative," he said.

The message of over-regulation in recent years has come from a growing cadre of influential lobbyists hired by the industry. That increased spending to influence lawmakers has come at a time of rapid enrollment growth, a host of key policy wins and the redirection of state construction funding away from traditional public schools.

Much of the money driving that push has come from Charter School USA and Academica, private companies that manage charter schools.

Their expanded voice in the halls of the Capitol places the companies squarely at the intersection of politics and education policy. They oversee schools with just above 51,000 Florida students, up 115 percent since 2008. That's larger than 54 school districts.

They are not the only charter entities to lobby lawmakers, but during that same time frame they have increased their annual lobbying efforts from an estimated $270,000 to $445,000. Because firms must only report lobbying ranges, an exact number is not available.

Contract lobbyists for the companies include Horne, former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Al Cardenas and former state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee.

'MANAGEMENT FEES'

Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive taxpayer dollars for items such as teacher salaries and education materials, but they are managed by nonprofit boards and private companies, not elected school boards.

The private companies provide services like writing charter school applications, curriculum development, employee recruitment, financial management and human resources services.

In 2011 alone, charter schools paid Charter School USA and Academica nearly $25 million in "management fees" for those services, according to records filed with the IRS.

Ken Haiko, who is chairman for nonprofits that operate 26 charter schools managed by Charter School USA, says when large management companies successfully lobby for law changes, the entire industry benefits.

"All charter school students will enjoy more resources for their classrooms, all charter school teachers will receive increased pay and all charter school students will benefit," he said.

St. Johns County Superintendent Schools Joseph Joyner supports charter schools, but he has seen differences with the large charter schools run by management companies.

"They are large companies that make dozens of applications every year in dozens of school districts, and they are well funded and well connected," he said. "In my experience, I fail to see any of the innovative nature and innovativeness" seen in small charter schools.

Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter School USA, says there are clear academic benefits for students who attend schools overseen by management companies.

"Proven education success and delivery; a Students First model; FCAT A-rated schools; the first SACS-accredited education management organization in the U.S.; quality teachers and data driven results; and ample opportunities for parental input and participation," he wrote in an email. …