Charter schools, Florida lawmakers and selective scrutiny

Does Sen. Bullard, a teacher and local union rep, have a conflict of interest too?

I was a news reporter for 20 years. I appreciate what good journalists do. But I’m often perplexed by the selective scrutiny that permeates so much education coverage in Florida, particularly when it comes to school choice issues.

The latest example: An “investigation” by an Orlando TV station into the “cozy connections” between Florida state lawmakers and rapidly expanding charter schools. WFTV-Ch. 9 raised conflict-of-interest questions this week about lawmakers who work for charter schools and who have backed legislation that generally promotes charter expansion. It  singled out incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel; Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami; and John Legg, R-New Port Richey, a state rep headed to the state senate.

First off, this is old news. The ties between all three lawmakers and charter schools have been well publicized. In fact, they were among a bigger handful of lawmakers cited last December in a front-page Tampa Bay Times piece on the same issue. Curiously, the TV station kicked off its story with the same anecdotal lead as the Times did, one involving Legg and the Pasco County School Board.

More important, the station neglected to mention that a number of other lawmakers have strong if not direct ties to school districts. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, heads the state superintendents association. Former state rep and now Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is a public school teacher and local union rep. Two newly elected  Democratic state reps, Mark Danish in Tampa and Karen Castor Dentel in the Orlando area, also teach in district schools. Should teacher-lawmakers be voting on state budgets that could affect how much they’re paid? Should they vote on legislation that could impact how they’re evaluated?

This is old news, too, but as far as I can tell, it’s never been a story. Educators turned lawmakers have been around forever. Former state lawmaker and now U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, for example, was a leading voice against virtually every Jeb Bush-era education initiative at the same time she was an administrator in the Miami-Dade school district. I can recall several stories about her amazing hat collection, but none that questioned whether she faced a conflict with her votes on education policy.

To be clear, I’m not saying these ties shouldn’t be looked at. They might be worth chewing on, too, but they’d have to be more specific and alarming than what’s contained in the TV station’s report. (Fresen, the story notes, “voted to make it easier for high-performing charters to expand – even though his sister and brother-in law led Academica,” a charter school operator. I have no doubt there are gobs of lawmakers whose family members work in traditional public schools. And wouldn’t there be far more of a wow factor if Fresen – or any other lawmaker – voted against the expansion of high-performing charters?)

The bigger point is, the potential entanglements of lawmakers and education interests should be given consideration across all ed sectors, not just charter schools. That’s basic fairness, isn’t it?

On a related note, it’s also curious that WFTV quoted only one parent, and did not fully disclose who she is. Linda Kobert is not just an “Orange County public school parent,” as the story described her, but a co-founder of the hard-charging group Fund Education Now. FEN is no fan of school choice options, and that’s its right. But it would have been nice if the story also quoted a charter school parent. There are at least 200,000 of them in Florida now – and it’s because of them, not lawmakers, that charter schools are on the rise.

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