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The DoE/Jefferson scandal narrative should force major change in Florida schools and government. A bias toward cynicism is in the way.
Power makes it painful to care about "silly" things like civic life and humane education. The only way past it is through it.
Most of this article was written before the public became aware that the Florida Department of Education "Innovation and Implementation team" was a grant theft ring that turned on itself and then wreaked havoc on its workplace after an armed home confrontation. Really. Read the story.
I think that rather extraordinary fact, added to all the tentacles of the unrelated DoE/Jefferson scandal already revealed through journalism and civic action, demonstrates a pretty striking public narrative:
Your state-school system — and the state agency that operates it under the authority and workplace culture of Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran — has become a deeply cynical state-run criminal enterprise that victimizes children, communities, taxpayers, and its own honest employees just trying to survive.
I am the least cynical person you will ever meet. So that narrative angers me.
I think revealing, confronting, and repairing that narrative should dominate the immediate priorities of Florida’s journalism and public narrative-creation — as well as our civic energy. That’s why our criminal and cynical state school system is dominating my priorities to the point of annoying everyone. Deal with it.
If we Floridians can destroy the corrupt state authority Florida’s state system has become and replace it with a humane state developmental resource, it will improve millions of lives very quickly and set a template for rebuilding the crumbling civic space of our state. That is no cynical or small ambition.
And it is a profoundly difficult challenge — made so both by a public that really can’t spare much attention or concern as it struggles to get through the day and the mass media and journalism ecosystem built around those same public limitations of attention and concern.
If it has a bias, the Florida media ecosystem, like the American one, is biased toward cynicism. It has a bias against idealism. Against caring. To care is to make oneself vulnerable in a world of compounding vulnerabilities. “To love is to feel pain,” as America’s least cynical rock band Drive-by Truckers once wrote.
That’s a big hurdle to understand and overcome in creating public narrative about a scandal that is about human pain — children’s pain — and how state power inflicts it. The people of the Florida media ecosystem — with some exceptions — are not generally cynical in my observation. But their professional and life incentives are.
That’s because nothing sustains existing corrupt power structures as effectively as cynicism; and power despises nothing so much as idealism. It wants to mock you for caring sincerely about your civic space. If power makes caring about idealism socially and economically painful enough, you’ll stop, or never even start.
This article looks closely at how that dynamic is playing out in the DoE/Jefferson scandal — what we’re up against in creating and sustaining the public narrative necessary to drive humane, decent change. It’s a little long, like much that I write; but snide reference to length in discussing complex systems and stories is often a shorthand for cynicism. TL/DR is the most cynical text abbreviation.
A political journalist cannot write an accurate and honest education-focused article about the politics of Florida today without including this fact: two inspector generals — one state, one federal — are poised to subject Gov. Ron DeSantis’ entire state education leadership team to very long, very uncomfortable interviews about the massive DoE/Jefferson bid-rigging and general corruption scandal.
The state IG has committed to it publicly. The federal Department of Education IG has not committed publicly; but Florida’s Congressional democrats have asked for it formally. And their letter hints that some inquiry might be underway already.
Florida’s collective body-politic and statewide media organisms have not yet internalized the momentous political and civic implications of these investigations into Ron DeSantis’ Department of Education, Florida’s most important and daily life-consequential government agency.
Or they don’t want to. Or both.
What the IG investigations should mean for state narrative
I will admit something: these OIG investigations could just be cynical shams designed to take away a “cover-up” talking point and diffuse some of the heat in this scandal.
In a reversal from the office’s previous statement, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske confirmed Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel is reviewing how the Department of Education and its inspector general handled the bid for a multimillion-dollar contract.
“She is doing her due diligence on all of the above,” said Fenske, the governor’s communications director.
Evidence shows the department tried to steer the contract to a politically connected vendor, but its inspector general did not investigate the matter.
I am not cynical. So I choose to take Taryn Fenske, speaking as the voice of Ron DeSantis, at her word in this matter. I choose to assume that Melinda Miguel is an honest public servant dedicated to finding truth and fostering honest government.
I will be watching; and I hope they do not force me to change my point-of-view.
“All of the above” in this investigation means interviewing, among others: Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and DoE Chancellor Jacob Oliva; Ralph Arza, the powerful convicted criminal witness tamperer and state charter schools spokesman; Trey Traviesa, the highly connected government and education consultant/former lawmaker; and anyone who took part in a shady Nov. 1 meeting about Jefferson County at the Florida Department of Education.
Interview topics should include bid-rigging, official corruption, misuse of state DoE personnel resources, misuse of federal coronavirus money, whether Somerset Charter delivered all resources it was paid to Jefferson County, and the abject failure of Florida’s “Schools of Hope” program in Jefferson County and beyond.
Interviews should include DoE Inspector General Mike Blackburn and investigator Jordan Walker, who did the sham investigation of DoE/Jefferson for Richard Corcoran’s DoE. Yes, the state IG Miguel should investigate the DoE investigators for why they ignored the MGT part of the bid-rigging, if the new investigators aren’t scamming us, too.
That’s how big this story is on its merits.
These interviews might include questions about legal “obstruction” or “conspiracy,” triggered by the obvious bid corruption involving multiple people that was then openly hidden from the elected Jefferson County School Board by multiple people in state government.
And Ron DeSantis himself should absolutely be asked what he knew and when. Before Fenske publicly contradicted her, DeSantis’ other spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, openly declared the bid-rigging investigation prematurely closed in a blatant public coverup of the MGT portion of it.
If these investigations are not shams, everybody I just mentioned should bring a lawyer to their interviews. I assume it is a crime to lie to Inspector Generals.
All of that seems … important? … to the political and education and power life and narrative of our strange state. Would you agree? And if the investigations are just cynical shams, doesn’t that seem a pretty important narrative, too?
What if this was Andrew Gillum’s DoE?
The DoE/Jefferson story — and all those upcoming uncomfortable interviews — should be driving all education and political reporting and discussion and narrative in Florida. But should is the most worthless word in the English language.
I thought Andrew Gillum a weak, superficial candidate, who failed to campaign at all about Florida’s broken education system, which was broken in 2018, too.
It’s not sour grapes to note that if he had narrowly defeated Ron DeSantis, this DoE/Jefferson corruption scandal in Gillum’s state education system executed by his top appointees would lead the Florida “Playbook” in Politico every day. It would be all over Fox News, especially if Gillum was openly positioning himself for the ‘24 presidential election.
People would be swarming Gillum for damaging comment. As a candidate, they all swarmed him over free “Hamilton” tickets; imagine a multi-million dollar bid-rigging scandal that sold out a tiny Trump-voting county. Gillum’s comprehensively corrupt and incompetent DoE would be the context for every political story anybody wrote about him. One need not support Democrats or Gillum to recognize that if one is remotely honest.
And all of that would be entirely appropriate.
Politico’s “most read property”
I tweaked Politico Florida mildly a few days ago about the absence of DoE/Jefferson in their narrative creation machine. And I got a curiously defensive public response from Bureau Chief Matt Dixon. We are not ignoring the story, he insists. Umm, they are.
This reaction struck me. It played into ideas already bouncing around my over-stimulated brain about the levers I needed to pull as an obscure dude on Substack to make the DoE/Jefferson scandal a thing.
For the record, I want to point out that I reached out later to Matt Dixon, who described himself as “pretty easy to find/contact,” with some questions about Politico for this article. They are probably unfair — but not illegitimate — questions about business model and incentives that Matt Dixon can’t answer. He has not acknowledged them. I’ll expand on that in a moment.
(I should also acknowledge, for the record, that I’ve just realized that Matt Dixon and Miami Herald state education reporter Ana Ceballos are married. I found that out after writing most of what follows. I also recently had occasion to chat briefly with Ana Ceballos, who I found delightful and kind. on top being a dogged and conscientious reporter. I don’t think I’ve ever met Matt Dixon; but what I know of Ceballos speaks well of him as a person.)
“Education policy reporting is … not particularly attractive to high-value readers”
Peter Schorsch, who owns the Florida Politics web site, was very forthcoming and open when I asked him a couple of questions about journalism and narrative in the DoE/Jefferson scandal.
Florida Politics reporter Jason Delgado broke the story that Melissa Ramsey and Andy Tuck had resigned in the DoE/Jefferson bid-rigging scandal. When I contacted Schorsch afterward, he graciously sent me the investigative report I used to start my deep dive on this scandal.
Delgado went on to break the the crazy Anchorman-esque “Innovation Team” corruption scandal I cited at the beginning of this.
Yet, to my knowledge, neither Delgado, nor Schorsch, nor anyone at Florida Politics has mentioned the DoE/Jefferson scandal since they broke the resignation news — except for a single tweet from Schorsch citing a “rivalry” with the Tampa Bay Times because it didn’t credit Florida Politics with breaking the story. I asked Schorsch why; and I really appreciate the directness of his answer.
Florida Politics specializes in breaking more news than almost any other Capitol outlet. Other outlets have the ability to go deeper in their reporting, but they don’t cover as much ground. We are wide, they are deep. It’s a good balance.
There are many, many, many stories out there. This is not a particularly interesting one to me. Education policy reporting is not a speciality because it’s not particularly attractive to high-value readers, whereas health care policy reporting is.
“High value readers.”
I welcome the lack of bullshit in this. It doesn’t surprise me; but it’s rare to see someone this honest about the uneasy, at best, business intersection of what readers want and what reporters think readers need to hear to be good citizens. That’s what the civics books tell me that journalism does.
(I am aware that in Schorsch’s past life as a blogger, various people publicly asserted that he wrote sponsored political content — positive or negative stories — for compensation. I asked him about that; he didn’t want to discuss it. I don’t have an informed opinion about the truth or ethics of it.)
An institutional bias against idealism
I’m different as a writer and reporter and essayist and activist from Politico and Schorsch. I don’t have a business model at all. I do this in my spare time. I have no high value readers if one defines that by their monetization. I have no “properties,” if one defines property as something to monetize. I have never been paid a dime for anything I’ve written since 2008 for “LakelandLocal” or '“BillyTownsend.com” or “Public Enemy Number #1.”
I am a hopeless idealist, who is very realistic about power. This is my weird hobby for addressing both. I am very very lucky that my life allows me to do this. I am acutely aware that other people may not have that luxury.
Let me be very clear: it is my goal to make the comprehensive corruption revealed by the journalism of the DoE/Jefferson the dominant political news narrative in the state — and perhaps even beyond. I am unlikely to succeed in accomplishing that because power in this state — and beyond — does not want this scandal elevated to narrative.
That’s why Ron DeSantis — who fights everything for the sake of lib-owning — is so quiet about even the very recent Democratic party efforts to elevate this scandal. He doesn’t want to fight his campaign on DoE/Jefferson bid-rigging and corruption. He’d much prefer book-banning and anti-vax as his narrative. Political consultants who want to win should internalize what he’s telling you with his silence.
But DoE/Jefferson goes far beyond DeSantis into long-standing Florida power structures in education and beyond. It reaches the heart of Jeb world. And that power really does not want its open corruption and failure commonly discussed. That power also pays most journalism bills in this state. That power is full of high value readers who make money for media properties in various ways.
Many of us care about elevating this scandal to its rightful place for the sake of a better public and civic sphere. Even more of us care about creating a state education system better and more humane than the corrupt, book-banning, grifter dumpster fire we have today. To achieve those related goals, we must understand with clear eyes the headwinds that blow against building mass narrative momentum around it.
It is not a question of bias against Democrats (generally the party of vulnerability) — or for Republicans (generally the party of power.) It’s something a lot deeper. (I’m an NPA, if you care.)
As I highlighted at the beginning, the Florida mass media and journalism ecosystem, like the American one, is biased toward cynicism. It has a bias against idealism. Against caring. That’s a big hurdle to understand and overcome. Many powerful people pay a lot of narrative-creating journalists to convince people it’s useless and silly care about idealistic goals.
Nothing sustains existing corrupt power structures like cynicism; and power despises nothing so much as idealism. It wants to mock you for caring sincerely about your civic space. If power makes caring about idealism socially and economically painful enough, you’ll stop.
That is how business model and purpose of Politico come together, in my view.
The alchemy of narrative: how a win becomes a “trouncing” becomes a win
Indeed, you can see the cynicism play out in education political narrative right now.
Contrary to Schorsch’s assertion, today’s high value readers and properties in Florida and beyond are very “attracted” to a particular education narrative: the November gubernatorial election in Virginia. You probably recall that Republican Glenn Youngkin narrowly won in a Biden +10 state against a tired Clintonian candidate.
Here are two examples of that dominant narrative from the last couple of days: one from Politico’s Dixon and another from the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times’ Ceballos shared Tallahassee bureau.
Tampa Bay Times: “Florida GOP bill would slash some school board members’ salaries”
Both stories use the Virginia governor’s race as their context and narrative. Neither story mentions the Florida state education scandal as context for its political analysis.
This is particularly curious for Ceballos, who along with Lawrence Mower, has broken much of the important news in the DoE/Jefferson scandal. And yet, it doesn’t merit a mention in her article, which, like Dixon’s article, talks about how Charlie Crist is reacting to the Virginia race with a parents’ group. There is no mention of Charlie Crist signing a Congressional letter calling for federal investigation of Florida DoE corruption.
But Politico’s Dixon leans much harder into the narrative than Ceballos.
In fact, the first version of his article called Youngkin’s 51.01 — 48.83 margin of victory a “trouncing.” I found that odd and asked on Twitter, “by what metric?” When I reread the article later, I found that “trouncing” had been quietly edited out of the lingering journalism, with no explanation for the sake of the narrative. The narrative effect of “trouncing” remains for anyone who read the early version of the story.
That offers a great illustration of the difference between narrative and journalism:
Journalism: Youngkin won 51.01 to 48.83 while talking often about “education.”
Narrative: Youngkin trounced McAuliffe with education.
There’s a difference, which is why I suspect Dixon very quietly edited his story. And here are the unanswered questions, most of which I would not expect him to answer, that I asked Dixon in a Twitter DM:
I think, upon re-reading your piece from yesterday that you've edited out the reference to the Virginia governor's race "trouncing" that I cited in my tweet. I'm not always a great copyeditor, though: and I wanted to make sure. Is that correct, and if so why?
I went on to ask Dixon:
Secondly, what [would] you say is the purpose of Politico and the business model of Politico? And how do those two things connect? And I have two additional questions: 1) If this scandal was happening in an Andrew Gillum DoE, how would Politico be elevating it. 2) If Trump talks about it, regardless of its merits, will Politico elevate it to a major part of the narrative?
Politico certainly does journalism, with very good reporters like Andrew Atterbury and Gary Fineout (whose clean, accurate stories I once helped edit for The Ledger when he worked for the NYT company years ago.) I think Matt Dixon himself is a good reporter. But Politico, the corporation that pays all of them, is in the business of creating narrative; and only certain narratives pay. We all need to understand how that incentive works.
Journalism for Politico, in my observation, is loss-leader credibility-capital for its actual business of political narrative creation tailored to the preferences of all-party power. And it is not alone — see outlets like Axios etc.
Saying “The great T/H reporting has been included in our most read property -- Playbook -- and as you mention, we have not shied away from reporting on these players in the past” as Dixon said to me in that first tweet — helps absolve the lack of sustained focus in narrative elevation.
Virginia vs. Kentucky: a national education narrative power case study
In his Virginia campaign, Youngkin did talk often about “education” in culture war framing; and that may or may not have made the difference. The narrative has far outpaced the journalism on that; but I suspect elevating “education” did, in fact, help Youngkin win.
I’ve long argued that “education” is a potent political weapon largely ignored by the elite of both parties. I proved it myself in my big 2016 School Board win and even my narrow 2020 loss in red Polk County.
The national GOP seems to have awakened to that weapon first — which is unspeakable malpractice by national Democrats. They should own public education but have spent decades helping Jeb Bush Republicans try to destroy it.
With that in mind, it’s fascinating to compare the 2021 Virginia governor’s election to 2019 Kentucky governor’s election in which Democrat Steve Beshear defeated his Republican opponent 49.2% to 48.83% in a Trump +26 state.
Kentucky is much much redder than Virginia is blue. And Beshear pulled off a much, much bigger upset in Mitch McConnell’s state than Youngkin pulled off. How did he do it? Here is what the journalism of the time said, from the New York Times. Note mobilized public schools teachers rebelling against assholery in a deep red state is in the second paragraph.
Virginia: Biden +10; 51.01 — 48.83 Youngkin
Kentucky: Trump +26; 49.2% to 48.83% Beshear
Both upsets tied to education; which seems more remarkable? Which got the narrative; and which didn’t? Which got called “trouncing?”
The Kentucky journalism did not become conventional wisdom national narrative because no one in power in either party — or with economic power anywhere — stood to benefit from that narrative.
Tell the truth: you didn’t know or hear anything about 2019 governor’s election in Kentucky and the political implication of mobilized teachers and public education supporters. Nobody applied it to DeSantis, who sounds just like Matt Bevin.
But powerful people can’t stop talking about the far less impressive Virginia election. Why?
That’s because power in both parties likes the Virginia outcome. In my observation, the Democratic big donor, old guard, campaign consultant, and “No Child Left Behind” education reformer class looks down on teachers — and really the entire Democratic voter base. It absolutely looks down on its core activists. On its idealists.
That savvy contempt for idealism is probably going to destroy the Democratic Party. The “education” excuse for the Democratic old guard and donor class is wonderful cover for Virigina’s Democratic leadership class running a bad corporate retread candidate who narrowly got beat by a poor man’s Mitt Romney.
Mobilizing around public education, in my view, is the best chance to save the Democratic Party from oblivion (I’m an NPA); but the action required to do so requires that Democratic idealists seize power from the Clinton/Obama holdovers who control and immobilize the party today. And Politico, the media business, thrives by elevating the narratives that sustain existing human power structures and economic interests, regardless of power or supposedly ideology.
So don’t look to Politico for much help, fellow idealists. Indeed, we’re not going to find much help from any media business built for “high value readers” — from business s that assume the existence of low value readers. Such a business will — quite logically — choose the interests of high value readers above all others. And let’s be clear: high value readers often benefit from corruption and cynicism. Low value readers tend to suffer personally because of them.
Politico-specific test case, Ralph Arza edition
We can test this hypothesis about help with Politico Florida’s own journalism about Ralph Arza, who is an absolutely central figure in the DoE/Jefferson scandal. My deep dive on that can be seen here.
Ralph is the director of Government Relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance. He’s also a convicted criminal witness tamperer, who was too racist for Ron DeSantis’ 2018 campaign. I know that “too racist for Ron DeSantis” part from this Politico Florida article from Sept. 14, 2018.
This was a good story. And I’ve been linking to it relentlessly. Oddly enough, that link is now broken. It was intact very very recently; but now I get this.
In any event, if Matt Dixon and Politico Florida are indeed following this DoE/Jefferson scandal story, they know all about Arza’s presence at a shady Nov. 1 meeting at DoE and about how four of his relatives work for the charter company. Here’s how Lawrence Mower and Ana Ceballos put it:
MGT had a leg up on the competition for the Jefferson County work: It had been in talks with the Department of Education for at least a week before the procurement was announced, and it was apparently tailor-made for MGT.
On Nov. 1, a week before the state opened the project for bids, the Department of Education hosted a meeting to discuss the transition plan with Jefferson County school superintendent Eydie Tricquet, Jefferson County’s current charter school operator and Traviesa.
Also included was prominent charter school lobbyist Ralph Arza, a longtime close ally of Rubio and Corcoran who resigned from the Legislature in 2006 after using racial slurs during a drunken tirade. Arza has four relatives, including his brother and sister-in-law, working in Jefferson County for the company currently operating the schools.
Arza told the Times/Herald that he was at the meeting on behalf of his job with the Florida Charter School Alliance, which advocates for charter schools, and did not stand to benefit financially if MGT won the award.
On Nov. 5, a Department of Education employee was told to draft the request for proposals. She was given a proposed agreement between MGT and the department and told to base the request for proposals on that document, according to a subsequent report by the department’s inspector general. The employee told the inspector general that Jacob Oliva, one of Corcoran’s top deputies and the head of K-12 education in Florida, gave her the document.
Politico and Matt Dixon, right now, could do journalism based on their own journalism by calling Gov. Ron DeSantis and asking him about Ralph Arza.
Ask Taryn Fenske:
Why was Ralph Arza too “disgusting” and racist for his campaign but is perfectly welcome at DeSantis’ DoE, taking part in shady meetings about the future of a Trump-voting county, with a majority black public school district that has already been scammed by state government?
Politico and Matt Dixon, right now, could do journalism by calling board members of the Florida Charter School Alliance about Arza. Those board members include Jeb Bush’s close education associates John Kirtley (father of Florida’s highly segregated and failed voucher program) and Patricia Levesque (who runs Jeb’s foundation, which has long been Florida’s education shadow government.)
However, both of those acts of journalism would help create narrative very very personally uncomfortable for people of power in this state. That is why those phones calls or emails will not happen. Prove me wrong, Politico.
I’ve already tried both and been ignored — because this is just my hobby.
Politico-specific test case, Sen. Manny Diaz edition
Matt Dixon and Politico could also do journalism right now by talking to Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who is neck deep in the charter school aspects of the wider DoE/Jefferson scandal.
Diaz is the Florida state Senate’s education committee chair. As a state representative, he helped secure legislation and funding in 2017 for Somerset Charter’s takeover of Jefferson County. This is from reporter Jessica Bakeman:
Diaz is a top administrator at a private college also affiliated with Academica [and Somerset.] Doral College was created in 2010 to offer advanced courses at charter schools, including Somerset Academy schools. Somerset alone pays Doral College more than $100,000 a year in public money for delivering college-level courses at the network’s schools, including in Jefferson County. And Diaz’s boss — the president of Doral College — has led the transition to charter schools in Jefferson as a consultant for Somerset.”
Perhaps Matt Dixon and Politico have already done journalism on this subject. After all, Dixon had Diaz on the phone — or in person somewhere — for extensive softball questions and quotes used in “Virginia” story I mentioned to you, which you can access here.
I hope to see the reporting soon if he did.
If Dixon did not ask Diaz about the DoE/Jefferson/Somerset scandal, it seems certain that he could get him back and ask. But again, that journalism would start to create narrative. I expect Politico to avoid it, even if Matt Dixon the reporter wants to ask those questions. This does not make Matt Dixon or anyone else a bad person. Most everybody needs a job and career to sustain their lives and families in a difficult world, myself very much included.
And of course, anybody else, including the big newspapers, which are less in the business of narrative than Politico, could ask those same questions. Mower and Ceballos could do it. They should — today. I hesitate to critique them about it because I’m so grateful for what they’ve done already.
But I certainly hope that the next story Ceballos writes about education political narrative includes the implications of her strong reporting. I believe in the meaning of that work; and I hope she does, too.
For narrative, I know that one cynical Trump is worth a million idealists
There is, of course, one development that would elevate this scandal immediately to national narrative. It is the ultimate cynical reality.
If one Donald J. Trump comes to realize that fellow Florida man Ron DeSantis, his greatest threat for MAGA dominance, has a massive education corruption scandal that he may or may not be covering up, which victimized a Trump-voting rural county for the sake of Miami grifters closely aligned with Jeb Bush and he decides to discuss that loudly in public … hoo boy.
That would be worth a million idealistic Billy Townsends in elevating DoE/Jefferson to its rightful place in the public consciousness. It would matter more than any future act of journalism ever could to drive narrative — regardless of the merits of the story.
High value readers would want to know about that Trump/DeSantis feud; and by extension, journalists would have unspoken permission to go hard at DoE/Jefferson. That’s how it works.
Certainly, I lament that fact.
I would prefer not to live in a state or world that cynical. But my preferences are irrelevant. I go to war with the media ecosystem I have, not the one I wish I had.
But coming back to Drive-by Truckers again, let me just say to anyone who wants to care about this story and the civic life of this state, which can be so discouraging of human investment on so many levels: it ain’t too late to take a deep breath and throw yourself into it with everything you’ve got. It’s great to be alive.