In the big-business world of education, top lobbying firms are key players

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

With Florida’s legislative session in high gear, a band of lobbyists pushed to secure millions in state dollars for Florida Atlantic University projects – including a new life sciences building and an overhaul of the elite university lab schools on the Boca Raton campus.

The effort was a success – the Legislature approved $22.5 million in the state budget for the two projects – and the lobbyists were paid handsomely. From January to March, the Florida Atlantic University Foundation paid three lobbying firms roughly $120,000.  The figure isn’t exact — more like an average — but it’s based on state data calculated from lobbyist compensation reports. And there may be more money to come, given that the legislative session didn’t end until May.

But as it stands now, that first-quarter compensation is about double the annual family income of a typical household in Florida, shedding light on how lobbyists do their jobs and get results in the state capital.

The Phoenix looked closely at lobbyists and the firms that do business in the world of education. That means K-12 public schools, private schools, universities and colleges, education associations and consortiums, online education programs, testing and curriculum and other parts of the school landscape.

And while families may think of education as teachers, kids and classrooms, it’s actually a big business and ripe for lobbyist intervention in the legislative process.

Top lobbyist Ron Book has been lobbying for more than 40 years and has dozens of clients. As for education lobbying, he says the field has grown dramatically.

“There’s far more representation in the education space today than there was five years, 10 years, 15 and 20 years ago,” Book said.

He’s lobbied for the University of Miami for decades and advocated for the sprawling Miami-Dade public school district as well as other education-related entities.

This legislative session, Book helped secure about $8.7-million for the SEED School of Miami, a public boarding school for disadvantaged students aimed at preparing kids for college.

Book’s firm was paid about $66,000 by the Washington D.C.-based SEED Foundation, Inc., according to lobbying compensation records. Book said that would be the full amount of his compensation, not just the first quarter earnings, and would include legislative and executive branch lobbying.

That $66,000 is considered a big-ticket item in the education lobbying world. Many public school districts, for example, pay lobbyists much smaller amounts.

The compensation reports for legislative lobbying show several dozen school districts paying various lobbying firms $5,000 for the first quarter of 2019. Others paid $10,000 or $15,000. Miami-Dade schools paid the most — $60,000 for the first quarter to four lobbying firms, including Book’s firm.

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher union, paid roughly $70,000 to two lobbying firms in the first quarter, for legislative lobbying. Meanwhile, Charter Schools USA paid several lobbying firms about $80,000 during that same period. Both amounts are akin to an average.

The FEA has been critical of the proliferation of public charter schools run by private entities, particularly for-profit groups.

Some school districts and other entities have in-house lobbyists, so they don’t report compensation in the same way that lobbying firms do.

In other cases, some lobbyists won’t charge groups or organizations, considering it to be pro bono work, so compensation would show up as a zero in the state reports.

The compensation reports are made public, though they can be confusing.

For example, a lobbying firm can be paid in a range of, let’s say, $20,000 to $29,999, but the report doesn’t show the exact amount. Another method for reporting lobbying fees uses an aggregated figure, meaning that the range of $20,000 to $29,999 would essentially be split in the middle, with the aggregated amount shown as $25,000. For fees of $50,000 or more, the exact figure would be reported.

In the Florida Atlantic University situation, university official Ryan Britton, a lobbyist himself, said three firms were involved in helping get funds for FAU projects and other issues: Capital City Consulting LLC,  Ballard Partners, and The P5 Group LLC.

The three firms combined earned a total of $75,000 for legislative branch lobbying and roughly $45,000 for lobbying Florida’s executive branch, using the aggregated approach.

Some of the highest fees went to lobbying firms that worked for higher education institutions, rather than K-12 schools, the Phoenix found. That data relates to legislative lobbying — with payments calculated by the aggregated approach — and totals from all firms combined.

Those lobbying firms include Nova Southeastern University ($90,000); University of Miami ($65,000); Florida International University Foundation ($60,000) and the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida, Inc, ($60,000).

 

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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