South Florida Sun Sentinel. September 24, 2023.
Editorial: Florida’s far-right schools activist is a well-kept secret
Twenty-three days. That’s how long Florida took to provide the most basic information about a man pulling down a six-figure public salary and pushing a far-right agenda with two underlings on the public payroll.
What we wrested from official sources is meager: Terry Stoops’ salary, start date and and title as the head of a new state office that seems to exist only to support ultra-conservative school board members. Before we asked, the feisty Florida Freedom to Read Project dug up several months of calendars and of emails Stoops sent to selected school board members.
Stoops has left a trail that spells out his disdain for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” that voters wrote into the Florida Constitution in 1998. Right away, that put him at odds with Floridians’ stated priorities.
Stoops’ background includes stints at the far-right John Locke Foundation, where he railed against a landmark 2021 North Carolina court decision that applied the same standards to school funding in that state, and found its Legislature deficient by $785 million that year alone. Stoops accused the judge of being “complicit in a scheme to extract billions of dollars in taxpayer money without approval from the legislature.”
Less than a year later, Stoops was grabbing some of that money for himself. In October 2022, his LinkedIn profile shows he left the Locke Foundation to be the “Advisor of Academic Research and Policy” to North Carolina’s elected education superintendent. Catherine Truitt won with the backing of the Locke Foundation and like-minded groups on a platform of giving more tax money to private and charter schools.
Stoops and his wife ran a charter school in North Carolina. The website of the North Carolina Democratic Party details his far-right anti-public school activism, including support for that state’s version of “don’t say gay” and “anti-indoctrination” laws.
Six months after joining Truitt, Stoops headed south for a job in Florida.
According to Stoops’ LinkedIn profile, in April he became the first director of Florida’s new office of Academically Successful and Resilient Districts in the Department of Education. But his name, and those of his two assistants, never showed up in a statewide database of state employees. Nor could we find any evidence that this office was ever authorized by the Legislature.
After Florida Freedom To Read uncovered Stoops’ mission and his existence, we tried to find out about the office. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Stoops’ salary was paid by a federal grant and administered through the University of South Florida. Salaries of state university system employees are not in the state employee database because the SUS has its own system, but Stoops isn’t listed there, either.
The source of the grant is a $69 million allocation to support educational opportunity in Florida, boost student health and safety and promote technology. Assistant U.S. Education Secretary Gwen Graham, a former member of Congress from Florida, should find out how Stoops’ well-paid new job meshes with that clear intention.
Stoops does a lot of schmoozing. As first unveiled by Florida Freedom to Read, he’s made the rounds of far-right education events, such as an April conference of The Leadership Institute, a think tank devoted to privatization of public education, and the Civics Alliance, which is pushing an alternative public school curriculum known as American Birthright.
He attended meetings of groups seeking to be alternatives to PTAs, and Florida Freedom to Read and our reporting uncovered a pattern in his correspondence. Though he describes his job as facilitating “partnerships with district leaders,” he only seems interested in leaders whose goals match the far-right, pro-privatization, anti-WOKE agenda that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Moms for Liberty have embraced.
“We would be happy to meet with the Conservative Coalition of School Board Members as a group to explore ways that our efforts may align,” Stoops wrote in an email to a Volusia County School Board member. He relayed his concern about sex education curriculum to Orange County School Board Member Alicia Farrant, a Moms for Liberty and book-banning ally.
None of these actions will likely surprise Floridians who have followed the DeSantis administration. They know he diverts public money to serve his political agenda and his propensity for hiring inexperienced far-right propagandists.
But why is his office so secretive about Stoops? Both Florida Freedom To Read and the Orlando Sentinel have peppered multiple agencies with requests for documents. Only a few requests drew responses, and those were often terse deferrals that were never followed up on — clearly flouting Florida’s public records laws.
The limited Terry Stoops story reveals more about the outsized, arrogant thirst for secrecy that infests state government, and the utter disregard for Floridians’ rights to know how his office and others spent our money.
Tampa Bay Times. September 22, 2023.
Editorial: Florida’s college affordability is something we can all celebrate
Even the many Floridians unhappy with the ongoing battles over race and gender on Florida campuses have to be pleased with the push for greater affordability.
No. 1 rankings come with the territory at the University of Florida, the state’s oldest, richest and most prestigious school. Consider its sports teams, which have won 30 major championships in the last 30 years, raising its national profile and feeding a rabid fan base.
But those are just games, exciting but peripheral to UF’s core mission of educating students. That’s why a recent No. 1 is worthy of more universal acclaim.
In a recent survey that places great emphasis on affordability, The Wall Street Journal has named UF the best public college in the U.S. and No. 15 among all schools, public and private.
It ranks higher than Dartmouth College, Cornell University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan, which is some pretty good company. (In a separate and better-known ranking this week, UF lost its prestigious standing as a top 5 public university, slipping to No. 6, according to the 2024 Best College rankings from U.S. News & World Report. But it rose in stature among all universities nationally.)
Several other Florida universities are doing well, too, according to the Journal, which said its rankings reject the assumption that education quality is largely dictated by how expensive it is to produce. Florida International University is ranked No. 4 among public universities and Florida State University is ranked No. 35. The University of South Florida was more toward the middle of the pack, at No. 151.
The Florida Legislature and the state Board of Governors, which runs Florida’s university system, deserve a good share of the credit for the high marks. Like the rankings, they have placed significant emphasis on student outcomes, including prodding universities to make sure students are getting their money’s worth from their pricey degrees.
Even the many Floridians unhappy with the ongoing battles over race and gender on Florida campuses have to be pleased with the push for greater affordability. It matters — to students, to parents and to taxpayers. It’s not the only thing that makes for a good college experience, but graduating with less or no debt from a highly rated school is a great way to enter the workforce.
There are caveats, of course. Rankings are never perfect, in part because they look more at past accomplishments than new problems. The Journal rankings, for example, did not take into account growing faculty discontent in Florida over the politicization of higher education. Close to half of the 642 Florida professors who responded to a recent survey said they planned to seek employment in a different state within the next year.
The Journal rankings were largely about costs and how they align with the projected financial benefits of a college degree. In that area, UF is a standout.
The school was highly ranked for the way it raises its graduates’ salaries beyond what they would be expected to earn if they had gone to any other college. It got strong marks for its high graduation rate. But most intriguing was UF’s sterling score in a category that estimates how quickly a college education pays for itself through the salary boost it provides.
If you graduate from Princeton, which finished No. 1 overall in the Journal rankings, it takes an average of six months for the degree to pay for itself. It takes 11 months if your degree is from Yale University, which ranked third overall. UF graduates required just three months to earn back their college costs.
Now that’s a bargain we can all celebrate.
Miami Herald. September 26, 2023.
Editorial: ‘When in doubt, ban it.’ Not even lawyers can decipher Florida’s book law
Catchy slogans don’t necessarily make good laws.
It’s one thing to rally for “parental rights” and against improper educational materials at public schools. But Florida lawmakers, so good at politicking, seem to have forgotten the basics of lawmaking: writing clear policies that the rest of the state can follow.
If a group of lawyers can’t figure out what a law does, that’s the sign of one of two things: The Legislature, egged on by Gov. Ron DeSantis, got sloppy and rushed through poorly written bills that didn’t get properly vetted. Or vagueness is the intent.
The Miami Herald obtained email exchanges among school-district attorneys and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents that show their confusion over a new law that imposed requirements on the review and disclosure of school books and materials. This is a serious matter because, under Florida statute, librarians and educators could face third-degree felony charges if they “knowingly” distribute content that’s harmful to students. The emails were first obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project.
The lawyers wrangled over the word “masturbation” — is its mere mention enough to get a book removed? They were confused about whether the new law would hold schools liable for material sold at book fairs held on campuses. They sought clarification on whether a two-letter word in the law — “or” — meant that all sexual material should be removed, “even if the book itself, taken as a whole, has serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value and is therefore not obscene/harmful to minors,” John Palmerini, deputy general counsel for the School Board of Orange County, wrote in an email to the Department of Education.
These are important questions because, if taken to an extreme, House Bill 1467 could justify banning the Bible or any coming-of-age story over sexual references, as one lawyer wrote. In a vacuum of guidance, school districts are left on their own.
Some of the most important American novels contain sexual depiction. The main character in Toni Morrison’s classic “The Bluest Eye,” one of the most banned books in the country, becomes pregnant after being raped by her alcoholic father. This isn’t a book about sex. It’s about a Black girl who wishes to have blue eyes, a discussion about racism, poverty and their perverted impacts — topics that Florida also doesn’t want discussed in classrooms.
Throughout the emails, there was a common warning to educators: Err on the side of caution. This is also one of the recommendations that the state Department of Education offered in its online “Library Media and Instructional Materials Training.”
That might be why Florida led the nation on book bans, accounting for 40% of materials removed from school shelves from July 2022 to June 2023, according to a tally by PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression. Most books were removed pending a school review.
That usually translates into librarians self-censoring, avoiding any materials that one parent or activist group might challenge. In fact, panic and overreactions have been the results of many of Florida’s vague laws, flawed products of the governor’s fight against “woke.” The most infamous one, which critics call “Don’t say gay,” left teachers wondering whether they could even show movies to students that contain gay characters, Palmerini wrote in one of the emails. The law banned classroom instructions about sexual orientation and gender identity up to eight grade when Republicans expanded it this year.
After HB 1467 went into effect, requiring all reading materials be reviewed by a school employee holding a valid media specialist certificate, teachers in Manatee County draped their classroom libraries with sheets. In Duval County, school officials pulled a book about Latino baseball player Roberto Clemente, though it was later reinstated after backlash. A school in Miami-Dade County prohibited the poem, “The Hill We Climb,” read at President Joe Biden’s inauguration from being accessible to elementary students.
These might have been over-the-top reactions, but the point of laws like HB 1467 seems to be precisely to leave enough room for interpretation.
DeSantis says book bans are a “hoax,” and Republicans are quick to say that Florida hasn’t banned any books. They might be technically right, but their deflection is disingenuous. They might not personally be perusing school catalogs looking for content they consider subversive, but they empowered groups like Moms for Liberty to do their bidding by pressuring schools to do so.
One way or the other, Florida is to blame for any of those books that’s no longer available to students.
Palm Beach Post. September 26, 2023.
Editorial: Addiction treatment laws not enough; better regulation statewide a must
It was an unexpected breath of fresh air coming from an unlikely source. It’s been some time since a presumptive speaker of the Florida House so notably talked up the chamber, particularly in an era where one-party rule has become one-man rule under Gov. Ron DeSantis. But, here was Florida’s new speaker designate doing just that.
“Legislative power should be the first branch of government,” state Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, told his colleagues shortly after they selected him to lead the House in 2025. It was the remark that followed that raised eyebrows further: “The problem with wielding the power of government like a hammer is that people start looking like nails.”
The comments raised eyebrows among political observers who wondered if Perez had just signaled a break with DeSantis. “It’s not a message to the Governor,” he said after his earlier remarks. “The Governor is a dear friend. Part of the reason the state of Florida is the state of Florida is the governor. Granted, the Legislature, in my opinion, is the most important part of the success of the state of Florida. But the state can’t work alone.”
Perez, a 36 year-old attorney who chairs the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and was responsible for moving the bill that created the Office of Election Crimes and Security through the House, is likely to remain a DeSantis loyalist. However, his hint that the Florida Legislature should be more than a rubber stamp is, well, encouraging.
A more independent Legislature in recent sessions would have conceived more laws to help Floridians address real problems, rather than bolstering the political planks and talking points of a flailing presidential campaign. The state’s new laws that prohibit classroom discussions on sexual orientation or end the need for permits for concealed firearms may resonate with the Governor’s ongoing crusade against the “libs” and the “Woke.” But, that won’t matter if the Legislature doesn’t re-assert itself upon DeSantis’ likely return to Florida.
There are a bevy of “glitch” bills, to correct, fix or tweak current laws, that state lawmakers should consider before meeting next month in Tallahassee to prepare for the upcoming session.
Take SB 1718, the state’s controversial immigration law. It has left contractors, farmers and hoteliers scrambling to find workers among Florida’s undocumented residents who have either left the state or avoided working here. Caught flatfooted, Republican lawmakers tried to ease fears by explaining away the bill’s restrictions as “politics.” The rhetoric didn’t work, because the law had a real impact, not a rhetorical one. It’ll take a change in the law to bring back nervous workers.
Election integrity is another political, culture-war initiative that needs a change. Thanks to the Legislature’s efforts to make DeSantis look good as a candidate in places like Iowa and South Carolina, elections supervisors in Florida are now forced to ask their county commissioners for more money to meet the law’s new requirements to run next year’s elections. There’s also the money spent on what is essentially the Governor’s dubious elections police. It shouldn’t take a backbone to get legislators to spend some of that money on local elections supervisors’ legitimate needs.
Here’s an issue that has Perez’ attention: “If I were king for a day and I had three wishes, I would tell you that one, two and three would be to fix property insurance,” he told Politico. The Legislature’s recent efforts to curb litigation against insurers and help them with reinsurance costs are unlikely to help insurance customers anytime soon with soaring premiums and policy cancellations.
Finding ways to strengthen, SB 7052, this year’s last-minute attempt at insurance consumer protection, should be a priority. After years of helping the industry, there’s no excuse for lawmakers to leave policyholders in the lurch. Perez, even as an ally in Gov. DeSantis, warned insurers as Hurricane Idalia approached: “We’re gonna be watching. We want to make people whole who pay for this service. And I think that they deserve to have their claims honored.”
As speaker-designate, Perez’ influence grows between now and 2025, when he assumes the speakership. If he wants to make a difference, he should immediately set out to live up to his promise to rebuild the Legislature’s role as an equal branch of Florida government.
Orlando Sentinel. September 21, 2023.
Editorial: DeSantis delays valid ethics complaints for years. Why?
We understand that Gov. Ron DeSantis is a very busy man. Iowa, New Hampshire, Tallahassee. It’s a lot. Somewhere along the line, though, surely he’s had time to read, and take final action on, 42 ethics cases against Florida public officials.
Yet he hasn’t bothered to finalize a single complaint forwarded to him by the Florida Commission on Ethics since February 2021. Many — we suspect most — of the officials named in the complaints awaiting his signature aren’t even in public office any more, so maybe he thinks matters have taken care of themselves. No (more) harm, no (more) foul, right?
That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Violating Florida’s ethics laws — which are, on paper, among the strictest in the nation — is supposed to carry a penalty. But if penalties are never assessed, then those laws are reduced to nothing more than paper tigers.
That’s a problem for an appointed commission that already had a reputation for heel-dragging and charge-dropping, despite diligent efforts by the commission staff to investigate and evaluate ethics complaints.
In some cases, the violations involved misbehavior that the public officials involved actually admitted to. Take the case of former Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, who — from her official mayoral email account — pitched Orlando city officials in 2018 on the benefits of a customer-service client created by a Flagler-County-based company called Coastal Cloud. The company provided some of its services to Palm Coast city government on a “pro bono” basis, though the city paid a $108,442 software licensing fee to a vendor called Salesforce as part of the deal. Holland was (and is) a Coastal Cloud employee, which she did not disclose to Orlando officials.
There were other allegations against Holland levied by former city employees, including the city’s own ethics-compliance officer. But the Orlando complaint was the one that stuck. In August 2021, she entered into a joint stipulation with the Ethics Commission that included a $1,000 fine (which amounts to a slap on the wrist) and an agreement that she’d violated ethics rules. By then, she’d resigned her position as mayor.
More than a year later, that final order is still sitting in DeSantis’ in-box. As for Holland? According to her LinkedIn profile, she’s still at Coastal Cloud — and as of this week, also serves on an advisory board for Salesforce.
There are other orders hanging fire, including the case of former Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer, who agreed that he improperly billed the city for costs he and his wife incurred to attend a national mayors’ conference in 2017, and Orange County ex-commissioner Betsy VanderLey, who stipulated that she should not have voted on a county contract with a firm her own company was doing business with.
We suspect these deposed leaders would like to move on. But they can’t. Until the orders become final, there’s no way for them to settle up, an Ethics Commission spokeswoman told the Sentinel’s Skyler Swisher.
We can’t help but contrast this odd reluctance to sign off on agreed-upon cases with DeSantis’ blood-and-thunder rhetoric about cleaning house in the federal government, should he win the GOP nomination and then the presidency. Or his eagerness to use legally dubious authority to suspend elected officials, such as Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Monique Worrell and her Hillsborough County counterpart Andrew Warren, for the “crime” of disagreeing with him or the Legislature.
Maybe DeSantis thinks he’s put enough time into the commission’s work. After all, he controls five of the nine appointments to its ranks —- including its former chairman, Glen Gilzean. Funny thing about that: After four years at the commission, Gilzean accepted a $400,000-a-year job heading up the former Reedy Creek Improvement District after DeSantis (spurred by his anti-Disney vendetta) orchestrated a legislative coup and replaced its board members with his own nominees. Turns out it was against state law for Gilzean to serve on both the Disney board and the Ethics Commission. Oops.
Once that conflict was revealed, Gilzean resigned from the Ethics Commission. DeSantis rapidly found a replacement, tapping a founding member of a group known statewide as crusaders for book-banning in Florida schools. That’s a deeply questionable choice, given Moms For Liberty’s demonstrated appetite for distorting the truth and levying false accusations.
Yet DeSantis can’t make time to finalize 42 cases, in defense of Floridians’ right to leaders who respect standards of public trust and ethical behavior. As these cases molder away, their deterrent effect dissolves.
That should tell Floridians what kind of priority DeSantis places on ethical behavior, no matter what he does on the campaign trail.