Politics & Government

How the political clout of a charter school mega-company could be at risk in Florida

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., Sen. Anitere Flores and Rep. Erik Fresen. three Florida lawmakers with close ties to the Miami-Dade-based charter school giant, Academica.
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., Sen. Anitere Flores and Rep. Erik Fresen. three Florida lawmakers with close ties to the Miami-Dade-based charter school giant, Academica.

One of Florida’s largest for-profit charter school management companies, Academica, has long enjoyed considerable influence in the state Legislature. Until last year, two Academica employees served as state lawmakers — and the brother-in-law of the company’s founder also held the education purse strings in the House.

The November election puts the company’s clout at risk and, at least potentially, could have broader implications for a booming charter school industry that has claimed a significant share of state taxpayer dollars.

Academica runs more than 100 schools in Florida and makes $158 million a year in total revenue from its South Florida schools alone, including $9 million annually in management fees, according to 2011 estimates.

It’s a big industry, one that critics say has profited from well-placed political supporters in Tallahassee. For Academica, the biggest loss is Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who is outgoing chair of the House education budget subcommittee — term-limited after eight years. He is the brother-in-law of Academica founder and executive Fernando Zulueta, and has worked as a consultant for Civica, an architecture firm that specializes in building charter schools.

Two other Miami lawmakers with close ties to the company are also facing challengers who could have a shot.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican, is the chief operating officer of Doral College, a private junior college managed by Academica. He’s facing Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich, a Miami lawyer who says she would prioritize giving state education dollars to traditional public schools.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, was the president of Doral College until last year. She is now the development director at a non-profit called the A.C.E. Foundation, which provides support for charter schools and appears to be closely linked to Academica. Flores is opposed by Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Pinecrest Democrat who works as a consultant and believes public education dollars should not be allocated to charters managed by for-profit companies.

It’s typically difficult to unseat a sitting state lawmaker, but internal polling from the Petkovich and Mucarsel-Powell campaigns shows them in tight races. Although both incumbents have raised significantly more money than their competitors, the bitterly contested presidential contest adds an X-factor difficult to project.

“I think in a presidential election year you have to take every opponent as a serious election challenger," said Diaz.

Academica, which is based in South Miami, did not respond to requests for an interview, but records show several executives have contributed heavily to both Diaz’s and Flores’ campaigns. Fernando Zulueta, his extended family, and companies they manage have donated at least $14,000 to the campaigns, according to campaign finance records.

While three votes won’t tip the scale against charter schools, which enjoy broad support in Florida’s Republican-controlled House, they could open a door for critics who say the state has boosted charters at the expense of traditional public schools.

“There's a problem when we see that there's so much money that is going for infrastructure for these charter schools in terms of construction capital money when we have such a large number of public schools and the amount of money that's being put into our schools is much, much less,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade.

House Democrats' political arm has targeted Diaz as a priority to unseat this fall, because if re-elected, he is poised to be the chairman of either the education budget or education policy committees. The next House speaker, Land O'Lakes Republican Richard Corcoran, is a passionate supporter of charter schools and Diaz could be a powerful ally.

Tallahassee connections

The charter industry has boomed in Florida, ringing up a string of legislative successes with help from closely connected lawmakers and lobbyists. Andreina Figueroa, the vice chair of Doral College’s Board of Trustees, also was paid at least $160,000 between January 2015 and July 2016 to lobby a state legislature that includes the chief operating officer of a college on whose board she sits.

For-profit charter management companies “yield an enormous influence individually and they yield influence through their associations,” said Chris Norwood, founder of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools, which advocates for independently operated charters. “As a corporate interest, just like any corporate interest, they are organized, well-funded and well-advocated for.”

Flores, Fresen and Diaz have championed bills for things like online virtual charter schools (Academica has applied to create at least 19), limiting local school district control over privately managed charter schools and using public money to build charters. In Fresen’s case, his ties to the charter school industry have made him the target of at least one ethics complaint.

For the past several years, Florida charter schools have received a proportionally larger share of state capital funding, in spite of having fewer students, leaving traditional public schools with fewer resources to repair aging facilities. Florida has given more than $760 million to charter schools since 2000, of which as much as $70 million in capital funding went to schools that later closed, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Charter school supporters argue that school choice has been a positive thing for Florida students, helping disadvantaged children succeed and encouraging innovation in education.

“They’re doing incredible work,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, the executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. “Public schools have gotten better I think because of [competition with] charter schools.”

Diaz dismisses ethics conflict-of-interest questions, pointing out in a Legislature where members are allowed to keep their day jobs, nearly everyone has some overlap between politics and profession. Florida also has broad ethics laws that only require legislators to abstain from voting when they will be directly affected by a new law or regulation, rather than when a family member or employer could be directly impacted.

“When I first got elected to the legislature, I was an employee of Miami-Dade County public schools. I voted on school budget and education committees and no one ever had an issue with that,” Diaz said, noting that other legislators have worked as teachers and superintendents.

Before he was hired by Doral College, Diaz was deeply in debt, according to public records. He filed for bankruptcy in 2012, citing $1.3 million in debts and was brought on as dean in June 2013, the month before his debts were discharged, according to court records. (In an interview, however, Diaz said his debts were discharged in 2012.)

Private college, public funds

Doral College is the Academica venture that may be most in need of friends in Tallahassee. The private institution managed by Academica offers college courses to high school students using public funds and charter school teachers.

The school’s proponents argue it is helping a largely disadvantaged group of students prepare to take college-level courses, and that all of its graduates have gone on to attend four-year universities.

But the college has been scrutinized by Miami-Dade school district auditors for using public funds earmarked for high school education and for its lack of accreditation, which is a requirement for dual enrollment courses in Florida.

Doral College has also become a campaign issue. In an October Facebook post, Diaz’s opponent criticized the representative’s involvement with the school, saying he makes a living “off of running a knock-off version of other dual enrollment programs” and that the college offers “worthless credits and degrees.” (Diaz makes $111,000 a year as Doral College’s chief operating officer, according to his most recent financial disclosure form.)

Diaz and Doral College president Douglas Rodriguez disputed the idea that Doral College is entirely tax-payer funded, saying the money comes from both participating charter schools and a private endowment, and stressed that students do not pay tuition.

In 2014, Doral Academy and other Academica-managed high schools paid the college around $460,000 to provide courses to 120 students. Rodriguez did not provide the Herald with more recent figures, but said Doral College currently enrolls between 600 to 1,000 students per semester. Academica is entitled to a 7.5 percent cut of the college’s fees, according to the terms of their contract, although Rodriguez said Academica has never actually charged the college.

One former Doral College student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned its value for his academic career, saying the class he took amounted to a regular Advanced Placement class with a few extra assignments.

Other students said they had gained valuable experience through the school. Juan Infante, a sophomore at Harvard University, participated in a research study involving mice while he was enrolled at Doral College as a high school student. He said the experience helped him prepare for lab classes at Harvard, where he is studying molecular biology. “I think that it really helped me see things that I wouldn't have otherwise and I'm pretty grateful for that chance,” he said.

Miami Herald Staff Writers David Smiley and Kristen Clark also contributed to this report.