Education groups plunge into campaigns
By Brandon Larrabee
The News Service of Florida
Advocates on various sides of the education debate in Florida have plunged into the 2016 elections, but those spending the most remain tight-lipped about where exactly their resources are going.
Two major groups — the Florida Education Association teachers union and a committee that supports the state’s de facto school-voucher system — have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into their efforts in recent weeks, funneling money to political committees or investing in their own direct-mail pieces.
But grass-roots groups are also getting involved, including the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, which has graded legislative candidates to guard against what it argues are misrepresentations by Republicans looking to seize on conservative outrage over the educational standards.
Largesse for the election, though, comes from more organized sources than the coalition. The Florida Education Association’s advocacy fund has been infused with more than $951,000 since January 2015, with the vast majority of that coming from either the state union or its national groups, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Over the same time frame, the FEA’s fund has spent more than $894,000 — including more than $585,000 in August alone, as Tuesday primaries drew closer.
“We plan on actively advocating for candidates who have shown their support for public schools and who show they can be elected,” FEA President Joanne McCall said this month through a spokesman. “We’re always actively involved in elections, and this year we’re focusing on this even more.”
The association’s fund has given money to individual candidates, including $1,000 each to state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, and legislative candidates Ramon Alexander, Loranne Ausley, Ben Diamond, Francesca Menes and Amy Mercado — all Democrats — in August. Some Republicans have also benefitted. For example, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, received $1,000 last October.
However, most of the association’s funding has flowed to a constellation of Democratic and liberal organizations. In a little more than a month, it gave $180,000 to the Each Vote Counts political committee — established in 2014 by Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, a potential future leader of the chamber’s Democrats. It is also a major funder — to the tune of $275,000 in installments starting May 31 — of the Committee for Progressive Leadership, which has spent heavily on mail and broadcast.
Because of the movement of the money and the general lack of information in state fundraising reports, it’s not always clear where the money has been used. McCall said the FEA plans to be involved up and down the ballot, and that certain legislative and congressional districts would be targeted.
“But we’re not interested in telegraphing where we’ll be most active,” she said. “But our greatest focus will be on candidates who strongly back our public schools, no matter which party they might belong to.”
Another major source of spending in the election is the Florida Federation For Children, chaired by Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley. Kirtley is also founder of Step Up for Students, the state’s main distributor of tax-credit scholarships. Under the tax-credit scholarship program, corporations donate money to organizations that help families pay for private education. The corporations can then deduct equal amounts from their tax bills.
The federation has raised $719,000 since the beginning of 2015, including a $200,000 contribution from Kirtley. It had spent about $461,000 during that time frame, almost all of it since late July. For instance, it sent $30,000 to the Partnership for Florida’s Future, which is linked to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
But Kirtley’s group has focused heavily on direct mail, spending more than $300,000 on such advertising this month, according to records posted on the state Division of Elections website. The group has also spent more than $48,000 on online and radio ads dating back to late July.
Like the FEA, Kirtley was hesitant to talk in detail about his organization’s plans.
“As we have been for many years, Florida Federation For Children will once again be very active in this election season,” he said in an email. “We don’t discuss strategies or involvement in individual races at this stage, only after the elections.”
Anti-Common Core activists are also plunging into the election, handing out grades to legislative candidates in a handful of races. Karen Effrem, a pediatrician who is executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, said the organization has focused on the state level because lawmakers deal with how to implement the national standards.
While Florida Gov. Rick Scott disavowed Common Core, the Florida Department of Education made what critics call cosmetic changes to the standards and rebranded them. Opponents say that while the standards didn’t originate with the federal government, states have been essentially forced to accept them.
“We choose races where there’s at least some awareness of the problems going on both at the state and federal levels,” Effrem said.
The organization has zeroed in on cases of “fair-weather Common Core fighting,” as Effrem put it. For example, state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, got an A-plus-plus grade in a Senate race, while her primary opponent, fellow Rep. Ritch Workman got an F from the group, despite touting his anti-Common Core credentials.
Effrem said Workman actually helped bottle up legislation, like a bill by Mayfield, opposing the standards.
The group has also given low marks to other lawmakers it considers inconsistently faithful to the cause, such as Joe Gruters, a Republican candidate in House District 73. Gruters, who the coalition blames for helping advocate the idea of rebranding the standards, received a D-minus grade; his primary opponent, Steve Vernon, got an A.
“That kind of duplicity is just not acceptable,” Effrem said of lawmakers who make themselves out to be tougher on Common Core than they are.