Koch- and DeVos-Linked Groups Back Bill to Gut Florida Public School Funding

Would you like the Florida public school system to slowly turn into a massive for-profit enterprise? No? Do you find it morally repugnant that schools across the United States are slowly being turned into for-profit businesses? Yes?

Too bad: Some very rich people would like Gov. Rick Scott to sign HB 7069, a hastily passed school funding bill that provides huge incentives to charter schools at the expense of public ones. And those billionaires — namely the Koch brothers, who are directly funding pro-HB 7069 campaigns, and yet another organization with clear ties to the Kochs, Betsy DeVos, and a slew of other wealthy right-wingers — are willing to mobilize their shell corporations and think tanks to ensure HB 7069 becomes law.

The measure seemed to appear magically at the very end of the 2017 legislative session earlier this month and then passed rapidly before most stakeholders in the educational system even got a chance to take a stand on it. Public-school employees and advocates uniformly oppose the measure; Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has begged Scott to veto the bill because it drastically underfunds public schools, and United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats called the amount of money for public education "starvation-level."

So how did this bill fly through Tallahassee? It helps to have a few billionaires putting their thumbs on the scale. The pro-HB 7069 camp is led by groups that have taken money from some of the world's most prominent conservative rainmakers, thanks to the fact that HB 7069 includes $140 million and exemptions to zoning and teacher-certification rules for charter schools. The Miami Herald reported last week that the only folks throwing much support behind the measure are charter schools themselves, in tandem with nebulous "school choice" activist groups.

Those groups have also flooded the governor's office with emails and phone calls. According to data Scott's office released to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau yesterday, Scott has received 11,800 messages in favor of the bill and 10,900 messages opposed — a curiously close result considering that only six days ago, the Herald reported negative messages outnumbered positives by three to one.

The most prominent "astroturf" group pumping up the bill has been the the Koch-founded Libre Initiative. Libre is, technically, a nonprofit aimed at helping Florida's Hispanic population learn English and get free turkeys during the holidays. But multiple investigations have shown that while Libre is teaching civics classes to new Miami immigrants or helping Nevada Latinos prepare their taxes, the group is also asking those students whether they're "more likely to vote for a Republican or Democrat" or whether they support increased taxation and federal spending. Libre is largely a data-mining company for the Kochs disguised as an outreach group.

As HB 7069 materialized in the Florida Legislature weeks ago, Libre began sending mailers to voters in five Republican Florida districts at the beginning of the month and in the weeks since has been running yet another large mail campaign urging voters in 18 districts to call Scott's office and ask him to sign the measure.

But that's not all Libre has been up to: In addition to blasting out pro-HB 7069 messages across multiple social media platforms, the group's Florida coalition director, Cesar Grajales, wrote an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel framing the charter-school-funding measure as a life-or-death moment for Florida's poorest families, as opposed to a cash grab by people who want to profit off public education.

"We cannot allow Florida’s most at-risk students to continue slipping through the cracks," Grajales wrote, with no mention of who funds Libre or what it does.
Hilariously, at least one other front for the Kochs has announced it's standing "in solidarity" with Libre, as if the two groups aren't funded by the same people. Americans for Prosperity Florida, a nonprofit that bills itself as "the state's leading grassroots advocacy organization," announced on Twitter that it's "proud to stand with" the Libre Initiative in pushing for HB 7069.

But Americans for Prosperity is another astroturf group founded by the Koch brothers and has long masqueraded as a grassroots activist group across the nation.
As with all things charter-school-related, education secretary and fellow oligarch Betsy DeVos is somewhat mixed up in HB 7069. This past May 17, the D.C.-based Center for Education Reform released a statement heralding the bill as one that "helps successful charter schools to grow and to serve more low-income students." The Herald identified the center as one of the few groups to throw its support behind the bill.

According to a breakdown from Media Matters for America, the center is largely funded by a revolving shell game of dark-money corporations with clear ties to the DeVos family, the Kochs, and other billionaires and Republican operatives such as Grover Norquist. According to Media Matters, the center receives much of its funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a conservative Milwaukee-based fund with roughly as much sway (but a sliver of publicity) as the Kochs; the Gleason Family Foundation, a secretive group that funded the "National School Choice Week" campaign; and, most notable, the Donors Capital Fund, which has been labeled a secretive "conduit" through which families such as the Kochs and DeVoses effectively launder money to astroturf groups.

In addition, the Center for Education Reform lists the American Federation for Children as a partner organization. That federation, of course, is a lobbying organization that DeVos herself set up and previously ran, according to an interview she gave to the Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013.

Also, one of the Center for Education Reform's advisory board members previously worked for a similar group, called the Alliance for School Choice — another organization that DeVos once ran.

The opposing sides in the battle over the bill, then, largely seems to be public-school unions, teachers, and administrators versus charter-school advocates who are backed by a tiny team of billionaires who don't live in Florida.

Given the fact that the DeVos family's school plan virtually destroyed the Michigan public-school system, the decision whether to pass HB 7069 should be obvious. But because of Scott's track record, the odds don't look good that he'll do the right thing and veto the bill.