Central Florida schools deny DeSantis' accusations of Chinese Community Party influence

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Four private Central Florida schools are scrambling after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended their voucher programs and accused them of having "direct ties" to the Chinese Communist Party.

They adamantly deny the accusations but nevertheless have to figure out what do with families dependent on those vouchers and even provide increased security as the governor's spotlight creates safety concerns.

"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," wrote a spokesperson for Sagemont Preparatory Schools in an emailed statement. "Our curriculum is accredited, standards-based and academically rigorous.”

Sagemont Preparatory School’s upper and lower campuses in Weston were two of the schools named by DeSantis in a Friday evening press release. They're joined by two Park Maitland schools in Winter Park.

DeSantis, a candidate in the Republican presidential primary, says he directed the Florida Department of Education to take action after a "thorough" investigation found CCP ties that "constitute an imminent threat to the health, safety, and welfare of these school’s students and the public."

“The Chinese Communist Party is not welcome in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “We will not put up with any attempt to influence students with a communist ideology or allow Floridians’ tax dollars to go to schools that are connected to our foreign adversaries.”

When asked for more information about the investigation and the findings, the FDOE directed the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida to its public records office.

But Communications Director Cailey Myers also pointed to a statement on the schools' 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.”

The schools, along with more than 230 others across the United States and internationally, are a part of Spring Education Group.

Spring's CEO, Michael Collins, is also currently an investment professional at Primavera, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Primavera has a 90-plus company portfolio.

"Primavera seeks to capture the greatest opportunities from dynamic economic growth in APAC (Asian Pacific region), especially China’s historic transition from a 'Middle Income Society' to an 'Advanced Economy,'" its website states.

Included in its portfolio is Yum China, a spinoff of the American Yum! Brands, which has the rights to operate the KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands in China.

Primavera did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

What's next for the schools?

FDOE's Myers said the schools were notified of the suspension through Friday letters, and they have 15 calendar days to appeal the decision.

"The Department is working with the non-profit scholarship funding organizations to assist impacted students in finding and enrolling in nearby eligible schools," reads the Friday statement.

DeSantis and legislative Republicans expanded the state's private school voucher program earlier this year, making all Florida students eligible for taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend private schools – a roughly $7,775 per student award.

They also passed a law blocking vouchers for schools "owned or operated by a person or an entity domiciled in, owned by, or in any way controlled by a foreign country of concern or foreign principal." That includes China.

The Sagemont spokesperson said they were not contacted in advance of the decision and were trying to get more information about the basis for it.

"In the meantime, we will be working directly with our families to ensure they can remain enrolled in our school," the spokesperson said.

In a letter to parents, Park Maitland officials said they were committed to helping families keep their kids at the schools. DeSantis' announcement and the subsequent publicity has created safety concerns, and the schools are partnering with local police and increasing security guard presence.

In a statement to the Orlando Sentinel, Parkland Maitland denied any CCP connections. They did not respond to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida media request.

A mother of a Park Maitland student urged the state to make clear that "the faculty, staff, students, and their families are NOT an 'imminent threat to the public.'"

"We placed our child in a private school for many reasons, two of the most paramount being safety and an excellent education," Wendy Meyer said in an emailed statement.  "I believe the statement in the press release jeopardizes these schools' safety and undermines these institutions' integrity."

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called the move "100% politically motivated."

"This is just about partisan politics, the governor trying to appeal to a national base while hurting his constituents, and so many of our children who don't deserve to be caught up in any of this," said Eskamani, whose district holds the Park Maitland schools.

More on Florida vouchers: DeSantis signs major school voucher expansion in Florida, amid cost questions

China legislation controversy: Chinese influence bill passes Legislature, signed by DeSantis, despite discrimination concerns

DeSantis' candidacy and hard line on communism

The announcement comes as DeSantis, who has campaigned hard on the tough measures he's taken against China and other communist countries, continues to plunge in the GOP presidential primary polls. He's far below former President Donald Trump's commanding lead.

Despite discrimination concerns from Democrats and Chinese Floridians, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a DeSantis-priority policy that targeted “foreign countries of concern,” including Russia, Cuba, Iran and Venezuela. It puts the biggest spotlight on China, carving out language specifically devoted to how the legislation applies to its government and those connected with it.

The bill, which was signed into law by DeSantis, prevents the foreign countries of concern and their officers from buying farmland as well as property within 10 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure facility.

Livia Zheng, 7, stands between her father Xibin Zheng and mother Hong Li to protest SB264 and HB1355, which would prevent Chinese-Americans from buying homes in Florida, outside the Florida Capitol on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.
Livia Zheng, 7, stands between her father Xibin Zheng and mother Hong Li to protest SB264 and HB1355, which would prevent Chinese-Americans from buying homes in Florida, outside the Florida Capitol on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

But no one connected with the Chinese government or the CCP is allowed to purchase real estate anywhere in Florida under the bill, nor can anyone who is "domiciled" in China and not a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident. Though, lawmakers added in an exception for non-tourist Visa holders, as long as they buy one real estate property that is not within five miles of one of these installations and not larger than two acres.

This year, DeSantis also signed a bill that puts into statute and expands Florida's government device ban on TikTok and other foreign country of concern-created, maintained or owned apps. He also signed a bill that bans state colleges and universities from accepting gifts from and making agreements with foreign countries of concern.

It's also the first year public schools must observe Nov. 7 as "Victims of Communism Day" and teach a 45-minute lesson "to demonstrate the importance of remembering those who have fallen victim to Communist regimes across the world," according to a memo from FDOE Chancellor Paul Burns.

FDOE provides examples for elementary and middle school lessons from the state's social studies standards and include topics like learning about different forms of governments and the United State's checks and balances regarding the federal government.

A law passed last year requires Florida high school students in American government classes to learn about Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution; Joseph Stalin and the Soviet System; Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution; Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution; Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; and Nicolás Maduro and the Chavismo movement.

"Instruction must include how victims suffered under these regimes through poverty, starvation,migration, systemic lethal violence, and suppression of speech," the memo states.

This reporting content is supported by a partnership with Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners. USA Today Network-Florida First Amendment reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule. Ana Goñi-Lessan is the State Watchdog Reporter for USA TODAY- Florida and can be reached at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com. Follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan. 

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida schools deny DeSantis' accusations of Chinese influence