A weekend interview with...
... Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, a non-profit founded by former governor Jeb Bush to focus on education issues in Florida. Levesque, also a member of the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, talked about two of the measures she's promoting for voters to consider - one relating to private use of public money and one regarding education vouchers.
My interest is in your effort to try and do something about vouchers within the realm of the constitution. I read an article in the Palm Beach Post ... and wanted you to be able to explain a little bit about what you're trying to accomplish.
First, I've only submitted the one amendment, Constitutional Proposal 20. The amendment that I've submitted really is not a voucher amendment. ... I am still working on a voucher amendment. I'm still trying to formulate the language. ... The amendment that I did submit is important to me because it impacts all kinds of programs in the state. It impacts foster care programs, social service programs, juvenile justice programs, educational programs also. But much broader, it impacts Bright Futures scholarships and need-based financial aid and things like that.
Many, many years ago this individual named James Blaine tried to get an amendment into the federal constitution. It was really a discriminatory provision. It was discriminatory against Catholics. And when he didn't have success at the federal level, he started going state by state. My desire as a member of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, we're charged with looking at policies over a 20-year horizon. What are the needs of the state? What are the taxing policies that need to fund those needs? What are other provisions that impact state and local spending that would prohibit or limit the Legislature or local governments in dealing with the needs of the state?
And so there is a provision in our constitution, in Article I, Section 3, that truly will have an impact on the future. It will have an impact in that its recent interpretation would essentially eliminate entities just because they have a faith-based background, just because they're religious, they wouldn't be able to participate in public programs.
You don't think that's fair?
No. It's discriminatory to have a provision in the constitution that just because an organization, you know, you have two foster care organizations or name the public service that is being provided. Homeless. And just because one has a religious background, to say that the state is going to discriminate and not allow that group to provide homeless services, or not provide foster services, that's wrong....
So your proposal would be to do away with it?
Let me read it to you, because it's really simple. My proposal basically adds language that says individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion. I think that is something that the general public would believe in. The federal constitution (says) you cannot discriminate against someone because of their religion, but that is what is happening in our state constitution. So I think it should be reversed.
How would this affect things like Bright Futures?
When students get a Bright Futures scholarship, they can choose any public or private program to go to, as long as it meets certain criteria on accreditation and stuff like that. Right now, students can take their Bright Futures scholarship and they can either go to the University of Florida or go to Tallahassee Community College or FSU. But they can also choose to go to St. Leo University. They can choose to go to Clearwater Christian College. ... A challenge to those programs based on the recent appellate court decision, if you apply the same logic, then those are not allowable options. Just because St. Leo University is a Catholic university, it shouldn't be eliminated as a choice for a student to go to.
And it's not just Bright Futures. It would be their need-based aid, too. The state provides need-based aid to students to go to faith-based institutions. Look at the Florida Resident Access Grants. FRAG is eligible for any student who is a Florida resident and wants to go to a private college. ... I believe citizens should be able to participate in any type of entity to get their public programs fulfilled. ... If you look out over the horizon, and you look at the needs of the state over the next 10, 15, 20 years, if these faith-based programs are not options, if they are not allowed to contract with the state, we're going to have serious problems. ...
I am wondering how this first idea, of dealing with the Blaine Amendment, comes into play with vouchers.
Well, the tie is it was an appellate court decision on a voucher case that created the issue. That's the tie. ...
I'm wondering how you see vouchers related, and how it might tie into your other proposal that you're still working on related to vouchers.
This amendment isn't related to the other amendment. This amendment is truly to get rid of a discriminatory provision in the constitution. ... The other one would really deal more with school choice.
Would you be able to say just generally what your thoughts are right now, what you're thinking you want to do?
It would be premature because I am still working through that in my head.
Is there a general driving theme that you have ... whatever the actual details are?
Well, sure. I'll tell you what I said in committee over at TBRC. And that is my thought for the future of education is that every child is different, and every child needs different things in education. Some children are auditory learners, some are visual. Some learn better in big classrooms, some need one-on-one attention. I mean, you and I are different in the way that we learn. So I believe in the future education needs to be more customized and more individualized.
And I would love to see opportunities in the state of Florida where a high school student starts off his day at Tallahassee Community College for one period and then goes back to his public high school for two or three periods and then gets to do a work study program in the afternoon and then goes home and takes a couple of courses on virtual school in the evening, if that's what works best for that child. Another might spend half of his morning at a charter school and then the other half going to a dual enrollment program.
I think that choice is a good thing, and because every student is different if we want to have a successful education program in the future, we need to be able to cater it and make it customized for each child. That's what I would hope to accomplish in an amendment, to ensure we have those types of options for our kids in the future.