When Florida state Sen. Anitere Flores is asked about her greatest accomplishments, she immediately turns to her work on education — the same issue her opponents turn to when attacking her.
Education is one of several areas where Flores has had an impact during her dozen years in the Florida legislature. From the time she first won election as a state representative in 2004, Flores caught the attention of leaders in her party and was selected, as a freshman, to serve on the prestigious budget conference committee.
She’s also been a rare conservative voice on behalf of environmental issues, thanks in part to her mother who worked with a beautification organization in Miami-Dade County, and who had her daughter picking up trash on beaches and painting over graffiti on walls. But her biggest focus has been on education for students from low-income families.
A first-generation college student who worked full-time as an undergrad at Florida International University, she sponsored successful legislation to fund scholarships for low-income students who are the first in their families to attend college. Elected to the Senate in 2010, also helped pass $100 million in funding for public school infrastructure.
“Education is the golden ticket, the great equalizer,” she said in an interview with Roll Call. “My priority is going to be to break down as many of those financial barriers as possible that students have to entering higher education.”
Flores has long been involved with education without ever having been a teacher herself — and her role has gotten her into some hot water. After graduating law school, she was an education policy adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush. In the House, she chaired the appropriations and policy committee for preschool through high school.
But in 2013 — two years after she was named president of Doral College, a non-accredited institution that works with charter schools to help their students earn associate degrees — she introduced a measure requiring school districts to pay private tutoring contractors roughly $80 million in federal education money, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
That would have financially benefited Doral College’s parent company, Academica, which also owns Mater Academy, a licensed tutoring firm in the state.
A fellow Republican, state Sen. Joe Negron, said Flores’s actions were permitted as they would have also had a statewide impact rather than just on an individual company. But with Flores facing a tough race for re-election this fall, liberal advocacy groups are crying foul. Occupy Democrats produced an ad deeming Flores the “queen of corruption.”
Flores told the Miami Herald that the Occupy Democrats criticism amounted to “recycled and baseless attacks.”
Also, FloridaStrong, an independent advocacy group that has mainly opposed Republicans, sent out critical mailers to her constituents.
The groups have also focused on the $150,000 annual salary Flores made while at Doral and the fact the college is not accredited, which means its students can’t transfer credits or sit for professional exams, said Charly Norton, the executive director of FloridaStrong.
“There’s so much influence from the for-profit industry,” she said. “They’ve spent millions to pay lobbyists to make sure they’ve got legislators on their side.”
Flores left Doral last year and currently works as the director of development for The ACE Foundation, which raises money for Title I charter schools, including Mater Academy and other charter schools that do business with Doral.
Flores isn’t only known for her stances on education. She opposed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have reversed local fracking bans imposed by Florida cities. She voted against the measure with several other Republicans in committee, narrowly defeating the bill.
“This is something that would be bad for our local environment,” she said. “Being pro-environment is not something that’s partisan. We all have a commitment to protect the earth.”
Flores was once mentioned as a potential candidate for Sen. Marco Rubio’s Senate seat. While she hasn't ruled out a move to the federal level, she said sticking closer to home will allow her to have the biggest impact.
“To say there’s gridlock is an understatement,” she said. “I want to be somewhere where I am actually going to be making a difference.”