DeSantis’ move to pull Sagemont scholarships: Concern about Communist China ties or a political stunt?
Florida’s move to cut off a high-end private school in Weston from state subsidies to parents has raised political and policy questions: Were the schools really an “imminent threat to the health, safety, and welfare” of the students and the public? Or was the state’s move a political stunt to bolster Gov. Ron DeSantis’ struggling presidential campaign?
At least 229 students were receiving taxpayer-funded scholarships at the two Sagemont Preparatory School campuses in Weston that were targeted late Friday by DeSantis for alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
His office on Monday referred questions about the action and — any evidence to support it — to the Florida Department of Education, which cited this statement on Sagemont’s website: “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.”
Two Park Maitland School campuses in Orange County, with the same Spring Education Group ownership, also were dropped from the school voucher program.
Three days after DeSantis’ office announced the action, there was little clarity and many questions surrounding the move.
“On the one hand, it is possible that the Chinese government has set up organizations within the United States to act as fronts for intelligence gathering,” said Gregory Koger, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “On the other hand, this may simply be a case of Chinese individuals making investments that they believe would be in the mutual interest of themselves and Floridians.
“In the latter case, Governor DeSantis is harming the economy of Florida and preventing Floridians from getting the education of their choice,” Koger said. “We don’t know.”
Dan Stermer, former mayor of Weston, said his phone started ringing Saturday as news spread of the state’s decision to drop the voucher program at Sagemont. His kids did not go to Sagemont but he knows plenty who did and still do.
“With today’s fervor over China, the question is what’s real and what’s not,” Stermer said. “The (governor’s) decision impacts students, their families, the school and the community. Is this about Sagemont school or is this a presidential campaign issue? To the parents and the students, this is real.”
There are political overtones to the move, which came as DeSantis prepares to go on stage Wednesday for a nationally televised debate among Republican presidential candidates. “The timing of this decision makes it possible for Governor DeSantis to bring it up at the forthcoming Republican presidential debate,” Koger said.
Two minutes after DeSantis posted about the action against the schools on Friday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, his hand-picked state education commissioner, former state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. responded with praise for DeSantis’ “leadership.”
Emails to supporters from DeSantis’ presidential campaign frequently mention China, saying he’ll be “taking back control of our economy from China,” and “take on the Chinese Communist Party,” and a promise to “prevent China from spying on our citizens and stealing our technology.”
There may be political resonance, especially among Republicans on the question of China, and the move may allow the governor to show action on a foreign policy issue.
A Pew Research Center poll released in July asked voters to name the country they see as the greatest threat to the United States. Pew found 50% named China — three times the share that named Russia. Among conservative Republicans, 74% cited China.
An NBC News national poll released Sunday found DeSantis was the choice of 16% of Republican primary voters — 43 percentage points behind former President Donald Trump. In June, DeSantis was 29 points behind Trump. The NBC poll is in line with RealClearPolitics averages of national public opinion polls.
Given DeSantis’ political situation, and his track record as governor, people shouldn’t accept his allegations against the schools at face value, said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.
“In addition, the Chinese government is an easy punching bag because we have very fraught relations with the Chinese right now. So if you want to grab headlines, the Chinese boogeyman is a good target for politicians on both the right and the left,” Jarvis said. “It plays very well with the Republican base that already doesn’t want to have anything to do with China.
“DeSantis has simply found an easy target. It sounds good. ‘I am denying American dollars to Chinese schools,’” Jarvis said.
Jarvis urged heightened skepticism.
“We can’t have a discussion as though this was something real. What we also have to understand is that DeSantis is in the middle of a presidential campaign. It’s a presidential campaign that is obviously going very badly. It is a presidential campaign that has faded from front-runner status to fighting a four-way battle for second place,” Jarvis said. “When you’re in this situation, you have to make big moves that will grab headlines, that will energize your campaign, that will get donors to come back to you.”
In an economic plan revealed in August, DeSantis said he would “end our abusive relationship with the CCP, reverse our ever-increasing trade deficits, ban imports of goods made from stolen intellectual property, strengthen protections to stop child and forced labor, and end China’s preferential trade status.”
As DeSantis ramped up his preparations to run for president, he signed a law banning Chinese nationals from buying property within 10 miles of military installations and other “critical infrastructure,” and agricultural land.
He also restricted use of the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok on school grounds and state-owned wireless networks.
DeSantis this spring signed a bill that prohibits private schools that take part in state voucher programs from being owned or controlled “by a person or entity domiciled in, owned by, or in any way controlled by a foreign country of concern or a foreign principal.” The new law lists China as one of the countries “of concern.”
The state scholarships on average cover about $10,000 for a child with disabilities and about $8,000 for others. Florida recently expanded eligibility in its voucher programs so that scholarships once targeted to low-income youngsters or those with disabilities are now open to all students.
Some schools responded by immediately raising their tuition, according to reports.
Cailey Myers, communications director for the Florida Department of Education, said via email Monday that on Friday, the agency sent letters to the schools “notifying them of their immediate suspension from the school choice scholarship program.” Myers said they have 15 calendar days to appeal the decision.
A Sagemont school representative said via email on Saturday that it had “received notice from the State that our eligibility for Florida Choice school funds has been suspended. We were not contacted in advance and are seeking more information regarding the basis for this decision. In the meantime, we will be working directly with our families to ensure they can remain enrolled in our school.”
The statement said the schools are locally run, comply with all laws “and do not have ties to any government or political party, either foreign or domestic.”
Representatives didn’t immediately respond to additional emailed questions on Monday. Attorneys who had previously represented the school either did not respond or said the affiliation was in the past.
Sagemont has an A+ rating, according to the school search website Niche, which said it was the 14th best K-12 private school in Florida out of 309 schools.
The school’s website says it is dedicated to “empowering students to innovate for tomorrow.”
The school’s website said the total enrollment is 384, with the majority — 221 — at the upper school, which is grades 6 to 12.
The website said 2023-2024 upper school tuition is $24,194 for grades 6-8 and $25,706 for grades 9-12.
The lower school, grades 3 to 5, has a tuition of $21,116.
Transportation adds another $1,500 to $2,500 a year.
The school’s website said it had one faculty member for every eight students.
The National Center for Education Statistics website said that during the 2019-2020 school year the Sagemont School had 477 students from Grades 1-12 and student/teacher ratio of 12.9.
The Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office lists the value of the upper school land and building as $11.4 million and the lower school land and building as $8.7 million. The properties are owned by Sagemont Real Estate Inc. in Chester, Pa.
Spring Education Group’s website describes itself as “a multi-brand education network of superior private school institutions spanning infant care through high school. The network (currently composed of approximately 220 schools) brings together some of the best private school programs in the country, with proven track records educating children through unique and carefully crafted curricula.”
It said the K-12 Division includes “nearly 75? schools.
Sagemont was founded in 1996 by Richard Goldman and his son Brent, who was the first head of the school.
The Goldman family sold the school in late 2012 to Leeds Equity Firm, based out of New York, Brent Goldman said. Goldman continued to run the school for 3½ years after the acquisition, he said. Leeds’s education division, Nobel Learning Communities, was still operating Sagemont when Goldman left in 2016.
Goldman now owns Xceed Preparatory Academy, a private school with locations in Coral Springs, Weston, Miami, Palm Beach Gardens and a virtual school.
Asked if he had concerns about whether selling Sagemont schools to a national company could affect them in the future, he said, “We had a different governor then.”
“I wish I could comment further. I don’t know much more than what I’ve read,” he said.
Nobel Learning hired Rob Mockrish in 2017 as head of the school. In August 2018, Spring Education Group, owned by Chinese-based Primavera Holdings Limited, bought Nobel.
Mockrish said the sale didn’t generate controversy, and he didn’t think there was anything unusual about it.
“It’s relatively common for large education companies to be run by some kind of large hedge fund,” he said. “I spent a good deal of my career as CEO of American international schools in various countries.”
Mockrish, who left in 2020 and is now an independent education consultant, said he didn’t see any Chinese government influence in the curriculum or operations.
“I would say it never entered my mind,” he said. “I was operating as an independent head of school.”
Michael Freedland, a lawyer who lives in Weston, said his son graduated from Sagement Prep two years ago and his daughter attended the school from pre-K to middle school. He suspected that many students would not be able to attend Sagemont without the voucher program.
“As a parent, it’s certainly disheartening,” he said of the state’s decision to drop the voucher program with no notice. His family did not receive voucher money.
He called it unfair to the school community, including the students. “For a governor or his minions to arbitrarily issue an edict that this school is somehow controlled by a foreign entity and disrupt the lives of students and their families is reprehensible,” Freedland said. “You’re disrupting countless students’ lives and you’re putting the school itself in peril.”
The children, through no fault of their own, have become pawns in a political game, given it could affect their education, Stermer argued. “They are pieces in a game that others are playing — and they’re going to be the losers,” Stermer said. “They’re kids. They’re little kids. A first grader is not going to be able to understand it.”
Florida has been expanding its voucher program and scholarship programs in recent years without maintaining strict accountability, investigations from the Orlando Sentinel have found.
The newspaper has found voucher schools where teachers lacked credentials or college degrees. Some teachers had criminal records. Some schools falsified fire and health inspections. The state has also allowed them to discriminate against disabled and LGBTQ students.
When the Orlando Sentinel requested copies of 238 recent complaints, the state Department of Education said the cost would be more more than $10,000.
It’s rare when the state takes action to remove schools from the voucher programs, the newspaper investigation found.
The state removed Agape Christian Academy in Orlando from its voucher program in 2018, citing falsified fire safety inspections and employees with criminal records; the private school had taken in $5.6 million in state voucher money.
Many institutions were closed Monday and individuals — including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, both of whom represent Weston — were not reachable because of Yom Kippur.
State Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, said she had made inquiries, but had not yet received any information. She said she visited the school once, for a ribbon cutting, when she was a member of the Weston City Commission in the early 2000s.
On Monday, both Sagemont campuses in Weston were closed for the Yom Kippur. The only activity in the morning came from TV news crews parked across the street and news photographers taking pictures.
Orlando Sentinel staff writer Leslie Postal contributed to this report.
Anthony Man can be reached at moc.lenitnesnus@nama and can be found @browardpolitics on Facebook, Threads.net and Post.news.