The Big Money Driving Online Higher Education in Florida


UPDATE: All information for campaign finance comes from the Florida Division of Elections website.

Florida House Speaker Rep.  Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) tweeted the following message this morning:

I agree with @JebBush: online learning is the future of higher education!

I’ll bet he does indeed. Weatherford linked an op-ed penned by former governor Jeb Bush and education executive Randy Best in the Tampa Bay Times in which they say this:

Numerous articles and commentaries from inside and outside of academia are raising the alarm that American public higher education faces an unprecedented financial crisis.

For years, state legislatures have been disinvesting in public colleges and universities, leaving campus administrators to struggle with how to make do with less. The result: rising debt, deferred maintenance for aging facilities, reductions in programs and course offerings, dismissals, elimination of many  student and faculty services, and loss of talented faculty — many of whom haven’t received pay increases in years — to private universities.

Observers of Florida’s state legislature may quibble a bit with the last paragraph and have different take. I doubt that Jeb Bush would ever bemoan a “loss of talented faculty — many of whom haven’t received pay increases in years — to private universities.” Weatherford signaled a strong move toward online higher education at the end of the last session. So its time to take a look at some of the big money behind the shift.

There isn’t any bigger player in online higher education than the Apollo Group, the operative arm behind Phoenix University. The Apollo Group, it’s subsidiaries, and  employees have donated $15,151,533 into political campaigns since 1999 across the nation.  Just since the beginning of the year, the Apollo Group – separate from its subsidiaries and employees – has put $96,500 into the coffers of Florida legislators. Some highlights:

* The bulk of the donations – $85,000 in all – went to Republican PACs.  An astonishing investigative piece my Mary Ellen Klas this past July revealed how the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) channeled cash into the PACS controlled by legislative leaders, Senate president Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) and Weatherford. The Group targeted the RPOF with the majority of their donations, $50,000 in all. 

* Among the $85,000 mentioned above, Apollo made  $20,000 contribution to the Republican State Leadership Committee in April. The Washington DC based PAC turned that money around as part of two large contributions back to the RPOF.

 * The Apollo Group made token contributions to Democrats – $7000 in all - but in October, too late to be of significance in the November races.

The Apollo Group/Phoenix University probably isn’t the only online higher ed company trying to get Florida business. It is true that the online higher education option has benefited countless Americans. I met a Phoenix University student teacher last year who thankfully still had to do a stint in a classroom. But should – as Bush and Best say – just accept the fact that “state legislatures have been disinvesting in public colleges and universities” in favor of a corporate giant that’s obviously paying good money for Will Weatherford’s tweet this morning?

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About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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