2 private schools in Florida deny control by China, appeal voucher suspensions

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The highly rated private schools yanked from Florida’s voucher programs in September immediately appealed their suspensions, denying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ accusations that they had “direct ties” to communist China that threatened student safety.

But nearly four months later, the case against the schools remains unresolved, so 548 students who started the school year using state scholarships to help pay tuition at Park Maitland School in Orange County and Sagemont Preparatory School in Broward County cannot use those funds if they remain enrolled on those campuses.

The schools’ appeals are pending at the Florida Department of Education, said Seann Frazier, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the schools. He declined to say more about the cases, as did a spokesperson for the schools.

An education department spokesperson did not respond to questions about the schools’ appeals. The department provided copies of the appeal documents to the Orlando Sentinel on Jan. 19, three months after the newspaper filed a public records request for them.

In the Oct. 6 documents, the schools say they are not owned or operated by a company “in any way controlled by a foreign country of concern” and do not “present an imminent threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public.”

The schools asked to plead their cases before an administrative law judge.

The two schools’ suspension from the state’s voucher programs, which provide scholarships to help pay for private schools, shocked and upset parents.

Both schools have A+ ratings on the school rating website Niche and are well-regarded in their communities. Park Maitland was founded in 1968, and Sagemont in 1996. Both Park Maitland, which also runs what had been Parke House Academy, and Sagemont Prep, which runs upper and lower divisions, charge more than $20,000 a year in tuition.

Florida’s voucher programs, created to help children from low-income families and those with disabilities attend private school, now are open to anyone under a 2023 law that made all students eligible to apply for the scholarships. The scholarships are worth an average of about $8,000 a year for students without disabilities and about $10,000 a year for those with disabilities.

State law says schools that accept state vouchers cannot be owned or controlled by a “foreign country of concern,” which another law lists as China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela.

DeSantis — who has called the Communist Party of China the United States’ “greatest geopolitical threat” — announced the schools’ suspension on Sept. 22.

“The Chinese Communist Party is not welcome in the state of Florida,” he said in a statement. “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.”

In his initial announcement, DeSantis did not provide any evidence of the ties his administration found between China and the two private schools.

Both schools, however, are part of Spring Education Group, which says on its website that 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.”

Spring Education, which has offices in California and Pennsylvania, runs about 230 private schools in 19 states. Park Maitland, which has long operated on U.S. Highway 17-92 in Maitland, was sold to a division of Spring Education in late 2017, according to a press release put out Mergium Advisors Inc., which helped with the sale.

Three days after the schools were suspended, the education department pointed to the schools’ websites as evidence of violation of that law and said that it had “verified their connections” to China.

In November, the department responded to a request for more information about what its investigation had turned up by sending incorporation documents that listed Spring Education as a foreign company and a printout of a NexisLexis search that showed Primavera with a Beijing address.

Both schools defended themselves as soon as DeSantis announced their scholarship suspension. “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,” they said in a September statement.

The Chinese Communist Party has been a focus of criticism from DeSantis for the past several years, and he kept up that critique on the presidential campaign trail.

Last year, he also signed a law that banned TikTok from state-owned phones and aimed to end what he viewed as China’s influence in state universities.

Primavera is invested in TikTok’s parent company, and in 2022 purchased the Princeton Review and Tutor.com, raising some concerns “at a time of increased scrutiny of Chinese investment in the U.S,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal in 2019 also reported that some parents in New York City worried about the sale of their children’s private school to Spring Education, citing concerns about the group’s Chinese backers and whether that posed issues for the privacy of student data.