The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado
Some 40 years ago in Miami, Thomas Cerra was a classroom teacher who became a lobbyist, working the halls of the state Capitol and hoping to influence lawmakers on behalf of Dade County public schools.
Only one other public school district lobbyist was in Tallahassee in those days, Cerra recalls.
But as the decades unfolded, the education lobbying world changed dramatically along with the fiercely competitive school landscape and the billions of dollars at stake in the wars over education.
“Now, literally almost every (public school) district has a specific lobbyist or is working with a lobbying firm,” says Cerra, who still lobbies for public schools for Miami-Dade County.
Plus, there’s a plethora of non-traditional charter schools, private schools, for-profit firms that do education work and “scholarship” or voucher programs that allow students to attend private schools with public money. Those entities, many of which didn’t even exist decades ago, have hired one or more of their own lobbyists.
Overall, dozens of the public and private groups are using lobbyists to influence lawmakers who craft education policy and disburse billions for education programs, state records show.
That’s because in the state Capitol, education is not only about kids, teachers and classrooms — it’s also about money.
“Everybody is trying to get a piece of that pie,” said Ronald Meyer, a lawyer and a lobbyist for the statewide teacher’s union – the Florida Education Association.
The rise of competition in education and the growth in lobbyists, he says, “comes as no surprise to me.”
With the Legislature’s spring session convening this week, The Florida Phoenix examined lobbyists registered for the legislative branch, meaning lawmakers in the state House and Senate. (Lobbyists can lobby for the executive branch and often they do both.)
The Phoenix reviewed lobbyists involved specifically in education issues related to both public and private schools. In the public education arena, the Florida Education Association has 12 registered lobbyists, records show. Miami-Dade County Public Schools has 10 registered lobbyists. Seminole County’s school district has 8, Duval and Palm Beach have 7, and Pinellas has 6.
Other public school districts have fewer lobbyists, and small and rural districts have joined together to share a lobbyist. The North East Florida Educational Consortium is an example, with two lobbyists listed to work on behalf of those small, rural districts.
The teacher’s unions and school districts have been fighting for higher teacher pay and funding increases for disadvantaged and special needs students, smaller classes, and a safe learning environment in traditional public schools, like the neighborhood schools that parents and grandparents often attended.
The FEA is fighting against the proliferation of public charter schools run by private entities, and “scholarships,” or voucher programs, that allow students to attend private schools with public money.
Lobbyists working on behalf of charter schools and networks include Charter Schools USA, which is a for-profit education management organization that operates dozens of schools in Florida and elsewhere. Eleven different lobbyists are signed up to lobby for Charter Schools USA.
Other charter-related groups, schools and organizations use lobbyists as well, including Charter School Leaders, Florida Charter School Alliance and the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, which uses five lobbyists listed at the Corcoran & Johnston lobbying firm, according to state records.
Michael Corcoran, the founder of the firm, is the brother of Florida’s Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran. The commissioner also is listed as a lobbyist in state records, representing the Florida Department of Education. Several members of the education department also are listed as lobbyists.
As to “scholarships,” known to critics as vouchers, the nonprofit group Step Up for Students uses 11 different lobbyists, according to state records. The organization contracts with the state to manage the broad tax-credit scholarships as well as other programs that allow students to attend private schools with public dollars.
One key battle this year is a proposal to expand voucher programs, with public educators and Democratic lawmakers fighting against an expansion that would be funded by money that’s normally used for public schools. The political battle could end up in the courts.
At Step Up for Students, spokesman Patrick Gibbons said the organization makes sure not to use state dollars for lobbying and uses another separate private fund for that purpose.
Gibbons said that several of the 11 lobbyists listed for Step Up for Students are staffers who, in an abundance of caution, register as a lobbyist if they’re going to speak to lawmakers or provide information about the programs. One of those staffers, for example, is Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up.
Other groups watching the voucher debate closely will include private and parochial groups – and they use lobbyists too.
The Florida Catholic Conference lists four lobbyists, and those same four lobbyists work on behalf of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Florida Association of Christian Colleges & Schools has one lobbyist.
Many other organizations involved in education use lobbyists as well.
For example, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Commissioner Richard Corcoran are looking to revise academic standards and streamline testing for thousands of Florida students.
That means lobbyists for testing companies known for college entrance exams and other assessments show up in the state records.
The ACT, Inc. has eight lobbyists listed, with two who also lobby for an assessment system called ACT Aspire. The College Board, known for the SAT college entrance exam as well as rigorous Advanced Placement exams, has seven lobbyists.
When DeSantis discussed alternatives for a four-year college degree – career technical programs – lobbyists showed up in that category too, as did various online education programs.
Like veteran lobbyist Thomas Cerra, colleague Vernon A. Pickup-Crawford has been in the education lobbying field for more than 40 years. He still represents several public school boards and districts, including in Sarasota and Collier counties.
“Back in the day, there was no widespread social media, no email, and often when a bill was written no one knew what it was,” Pickup-Crawford remembers.
There were no nontraditional charter schools or vouchers to lobby for.
But as the nontraditional schools and programs flourished, Pickup-Crawford says, “People began to recognize that there was money to be made,” and that “education is a big business.”
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