© 2023 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A Democrat Running For Governor Founded Palm Beach Private School — But Is 'Dead Against' Vouchers

Miami Herald
Palm Beach County billionaire Jeff Greene, founder of The Greene School in West Palm Beach, is running for governor.

The Democrats in this year's governor's race say they're all about spending more money on public schools — and slowing down Republican efforts to create more privately run alternatives like charter schools and vouchers.

But the newest candidate in the Democratic field founded a private school himself.

Jeff Greene is a billionaire real estate developer and began calling himself an "accidental educator" after establishing The Greene School in West Palm Beach in 2016.

Greene's school — which is part of a national for-profit network backed by Mark Zuckerburg — does not accept taxpayer-funded scholarships. He said he's "dead against" vouchers, which are a lifeline for many other private schools in Florida.

"The problem with for-profit schools is, they're getting money that's sucked out of the public school system. That's what Rick Scott and the Republicans have been doing," Greene said. "And I'm dead against that. Because we need every penny we have in the public school system."

Next school year will be the third for the Greene School, which has been growing steadily. About 105 students are enrolled in preschool through 7th grade for the fall. A large majority — 80 percent — are white. About 10 percent of students are Asian, 6 percent are black and 4 percent are Hispanic.

The school would not provide details regarding how many students have disabilities or are learning English, which are two of the indicators used by the federal government to measure a school’s diversity.

Tuition ranges from $20,000 to $28,000 a year, depending on the grade. But the school is what Greene calls "need blind." If students get in — they have to take an IQ test for admission — their families pay what the school determines they can afford. The rest will be covered.

Next school year, half of the kids will receive financial aid totaling $800,000. Greene said his hope is the school would eventually be self-sustaining, with revenue from the students who are paying tuition covering the costs of the rest. But for now, he is putting up the money himself.

Here's an excerpt of WLRN's interview with Greene about his school and how it has informed his plans for education in Florida if he is elected governor in November:

WLRN: Tell us about the Greene School.

Greene: My wife and I have three sons who are now 4, 6 and 8 years old. And when we moved to the Palm Beach area, we found that the public schools weren't really at the level that we felt comfortable with for our children, and neither were the private schools. … So we thought, we'll start this private school, but we're going to do something different. We're going to pay for everything ourselves. We're not taking a penny of government money or even a donation from another parent. And we're going to have a "need blind" admissions policy. So we have an IQ test — we want our kids to be at a certain level, so they can handle a rigorous, fast-paced academic experience. But if they qualify, they pay what they can afford.

So you and your wife cover the costs — whatever the students and their families are not able to pay?

Well, first of all, it was an old car dealership that I had bought as a tear-down building. So we had to rebuild that. Right now, we're just finishing a 30,000-foot full basketball court gym, a library, a video production lab. So that's another $8 million building. Just the facilities, we're going to have $15-plus million in.

And then we are covering the cost of the school. We pay our teachers a lot of money. We pay them much more than they make anywhere else.

How much?

The average teacher is in the $60-[thousands] — $65,000 starting. We pay some teachers much more than that. For every eight kids, we have a teacher. So for 16 kids, we have two teachers. And I realize that's a luxury that we'll never be able to do in the public schools in Florida. But we try to understand what the advantages are of that, and then try to replicate what we get from two teachers with technology.

I would love to see Florida become a leader in using technology as an amazing tool to assist teachers to individualize kids' educations. Because, let's face it: We have budgetary constraints, and if we can use technology as a tool to bridge the gap — great, let's do it.

And wasn't the idea behind founding the school that it would be focused on technology and personalized learning?

The idea is to use algorithms to individualize kids' education. Let me give an example: Imagine that you have a child who is from a Spanish-speaking household, has amazing reading aptitude but just isn't interested in reading and loves baseball. What pops up on his iPad for his reading assignment: a story about a Guatemalan baseball hero. And all of a sudden, this child who didn't want to read just loves reading.

OK. You said that one of the reasons why you wanted to start the school to begin with was because you didn't feel like Palm Beach County public schools offered what you were looking for for your children. How would you propose solving that problem for all children?

Look, that's one of the reasons I'm running for governor, because I think we need real solutions. No. 1: Universal pre-K. Another thing is, we have to make sure that your life is not determined by your zip code. Some school districts just don't have the funding.

So how would you pay for those proposals — universal pre-K or increasing funding to schools across the board?

To pay for them — it's going to be a challenge. You know, we don't have a state income tax — and I'm not suggesting that we should have one. But we have to take the money we have, and just stop having these silly tax cuts that Rick Scott keeps doing, and [say], you know, we're going to invest in our kids. We're going to invest in our future.

Well, clearly, given that you founded a private school, you don't have a problem with private education. So what's the problem, in your opinion, with providing public funding for private alternatives to public schools like vouchers or charter schools?

I mean, to throw in the towel and say, "Oh, we have lousy public schools. Let's just go start other ones instead," and just let the public schools fall apart? I mean, it's just it's ridiculous, unacceptable. I'm going to do it.

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.