“They’re already labeling me ‘Mr. Education,’” Pitbull, AKA Mr. Worldwide, told NPR when his first charter school opened in Little Havana in 2013.
It was a bit of a stretch — the Miami Herald made that joke in one article, and it hasn’t caught on. But the rapper, born Armando Perez, is trying. In 2015, a second location of SLAM Academy (the acronym stands for Sports, Leadership, and Management) opened in Henderson, Nevada. Last week, a third opened on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach.
On the first day of school in much of South Florida (and the beginning of the second week in Palm Beach), the nature of Pitbull’s relationship with the school is nebulous. When he gave the keynote speech at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference in Washington, D.C. (we’ll pause to let you picture that for a second), the Washington Post reported that his role was “coming up with different ways to get people involved.” His spokesman, Tom Muzquiz, told New Times Pitbull was a “brand ambassador” for SLAM, adding, “He takes the education thing to the next level, so to speak,” but he declined to provide further details about his involvement.
The charter school application filed with Palm Beach County explains, “Mr. Armando Perez, the global recording artist professionally known as ‘Mr. Worldwide’ and ‘Pitbull’ has partnered with SLAM to participate in the implementation of the educational program and after-school initiatives at the school. Mr. Perez and his production team will provide access to motivational speakers, celebrities, and sports figures to further engage students in school and career initiatives.” Students may also have the opportunity to intern with Pitbull Productions, Inc.
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SLAM is part of the nonprofit Mater Academy family of schools and is managed by Academica, a for-profit company that the Miami Herald has described as “Florida’s largest and richest for-profit charter school management company.” In an investigation titled “Cashing In on Kids,” the Herald found the company’s founders, Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, controlled more than $115 million in tax-exempt real estate that was then rented out to Academica schools for close to $19 million per year. Meanwhile, the company was earning an annual $9 million in management fees from public tax dollars. (The company was later investigated by the U.S. Department of Education, which agreed this was a conflict of interest.)
Some education activists have been critical of what may or may not be a cash grab on Pitbull’s part. Writing for the National Education Policy Center, doctoral student Mark Weber notes, “In all my research, I couldn't find any indication that Pitbull himself is making a dime off of SLAM. He may well be doing this out of the goodness of his heart (although it certainly isn't hurting his image, which is how he makes his money). [But] there has been scant little reporting about the financial structure of SLAM […] which is precisely the problem. This entire enterprise is using taxpayer money to fund a school affiliated with people who have already made piles of money from the Florida charter industry.”
Others question whether Mr. 305 is a good role model for the kids. “I never thought I would see the day when NPR ran a story complimenting a misogynist rapper for opening a charter school,” Diane Ravitch, a noted charter school opponent, wrote. “This rapper, who calls himself Pitbull, writes lyrics that are too filthy to repeat on NPR or on this blog.”
But, in a weird way, it makes sense that Pitbull is getting into charter schools. He’s vaguely conservative in a way that has Donald Trump flying him up to West Palm Beach and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio fighting for his endorsement. He loves Tweeting out messages that sound like they belong on one of those framed posters about leadership and success. He’s really proud to have an honorary degree from a nonaccredited college. Just the man that the charter school industry needs.