Pointing to Communist China ties, DeSantis bars private schools from state-funded vouchers

Miami Herald | By Jimena Tavel and Ana Ceballos | September 25, 2023

Accusing them of having ties to the Chinese Communist Party, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended two schools in Weston and at least one in the Orlando area from participating in the school choice scholarship program, which allows virtually any family to apply for public funds to attend private school.

After a “thorough investigation,” the Florida Department of Education determined that “Lower and Upper Sagemont Preparatory Schools in Weston, Parke House Academy in Winter Park, and Park Maitland School in Winter Park have direct ties to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and their connections constitute an imminent threat to the health, safety, and welfare of these school’s students and the public.” The decision was announced by the governor’s press office in a press release emailed at about 5:30 p.m. Friday.

On that same day, Friday, Sept. 22, the state sent letters to the schools notifying them of their immediate suspension from the school choice scholarship program. The schools have 15 calendar days to appeal the decision, said Cailey Myers, a spokesperson at the Florida Department of Education.

In March, Gov. DeSantis signed a law expanding the voucher program that made private school vouchers of about $8,000 a year available to all K-12 students regardless of family income.

The state agency has not said how many students were using vouchers at the schools, but in the press release, state officials said they would be assisting those impacted. Meyers did not immediately respond when asked if those students have been contacted as of Monday.

Myers, however, said the state’s investigation found the same company owns all of the schools and pointed to the following statement on all of their websites: “Spring Education Group is controlled by Primavera Holdings Limited, an investment firm (together with its affiliates) principally based in Hong Kong with operations in China, Singapore, and the United States, that is itself owned by Chinese persons residing in Hong Kong.”

Mellesia Nelson, the head of school at Sagemont Preparatory School, which has a lower school located at 1570 Sagemont Way and an upper school located at 2585 Glades Circle — both in Weston — said in an emailed statement Monday that the school is “seeking more information regarding the basis for this decision” and “working directly with our families to ensure they can remain enrolled” at Sagemont.

“Our schools are locally run, abide by local, state and federal laws, and do not have ties to any government or political party, either foreign or domestic,” she wrote. “Our curriculum is accredited, standards-based and academically rigorous.”

She didn’t say if Sagemont planned to appeal the suspension.

Danelle Evans, the principal at Park Maitland School, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. The school, located at 1776 Minnesota Ave. in Winter Park, appears to be the same as Park House Academy online.

Myers didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions about how long the investigation lasted or if the state is investigating any other schools.

In the Friday release, the governor’s office said the state department of education is working with the non-profit organizations that distribute the vouchers to students to “assist impacted students in finding and enrolling in nearby eligible schools.”

n the release, DeSantis, a presidential candidate for the Republican primary, also touted his record for enacting “major educational reforms targeting the Chinese Communist Party,” including blocking access to TikTok on educational institution servers and devices.

“The Chinese Communist Party is not welcome in the state of Florida,” the governor said in the release.

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