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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2017
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Some want to change Florida education — by amending the state Constitution

One Floridian wants the Bible and prayer in the state's public schools. Another seeks to prevent state funds from going to any institution that promotes religion.

One resident calls for all school district superintendents to be appointed, while another says they should all be elected. A third would do away with the job altogether.

These were among the more than 700 public proposals for changing Florida's Constitution, with dozens of them weighing in on how the education system should change. The input is part of the process for the Constitution Revision Commission, which convenes every 20 years to consider what amendments — if any — to send to voters.

RELATED: Gradebook podcast — Changing Florida's Constitution, welcoming Puerto Rican students

Education issues, which fall under Article IX, promise to occupy a good portion of the conversation.

Over the years, the Constitution's language has sidelined some key proposals pushed by the school accountability movement, such as using government vouchers to send kids to private schools. So the push could be on to remove those barriers.

But this time around, the lift is tougher than in 1998, when voters established education as a "paramount duty" of the state.

Back then, a simple majority could amend the Constitution. Now, it takes a 60 percent vote.

That has some observers thinking that ballot measures coming out of the commission would need to rise above narrow political agendas to surpass that higher bar.

"I think any issue that could be construed as partisan could have a hard time," said Andrea Messina, Florida School Boards Association executive director.

Messina said the FSBA, which has not put forth any amendment ideas, is hopeful the public will temper any agendas that surface during the process.

And those are likely, if the first meeting of the commission's Education Committee offers any indication.

During that three-hour meeting earlier this month, commissioner Patricia Levesque — former governor Jeb Bush's key education point person — asked staff to research the words "uniform" and "equitable."

Bush's voucher program failed to meet constitutional muster after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 it did not adhere to the provision of a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

"'Uniform,' to me, I went and Googled the definition, it was something like, 'not changing, the same,'" Levesque said. "But yet 'equitable' meant 'fair'. … I would like to know if there's a little more nuance to that."

Could a word change in that passage be in the offing?

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Levesque runs, has not yet taken positions on potential amendments, spokesman Joe Follick said.

The conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members is keeping a close eye on matters, but has not made any pronouncements, either, president Bridget Ziegler said.

Linda Kearschner, Florida PTA president-elect, said she anticipated activity around the "uniform" clause that Levesque asked about. She also expects discussion about the Blaine Amendment, which prevents state money from being spent on religious institutions, and has been another stumbling block for voucher fans.

Kearschner figured the 2002 class size amendment, a citizen initiative that Republican lawmakers long have tried to undo, would come under scrutiny as well.

"We're also watching anything that might limit annual growth in funding," she added.

But the Florida PTA is not seeking major changes.

Commissioner Roberto Martinez, a former State Board of Education member, has filed a proposal to end the Blaine Amendment. While he acknowledged it could lead to more money going to religious schools, he said that's not his goal.

Lifting the amendment, he argues, would benefit other valuable programs, such as foster care and hospitals, provided by religious organizations.

The government still would be barred from establishing religion, added Martinez, a former federal prosecutor.

Florida Education Association president Joanne McCall said she is watching for any attempt to shift power from school districts to state entities, particularly relating to charter schools.

At least one person has proposed a state-level charter authorizer, an idea the state Supreme Court struck down in 2010. And the Florida Charter School Alliance has called for added protections to charters.

"We believe in the right of parents to choose their preferred educational environment for their children," alliance executive director Lynn Norman-Teck said. "We're hopeful the CRC recommends expanding school choice further in Florida by enshrining parents' fundamental role."

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

To offset what she deemed the "you decide, we pay" model, the FEA's McCall filed two proposals with the commission.

The first would require all schools receiving state funding follow the same rules. The second would forbid the Legislature from imposing unfunded mandates on schools.

Whatever lands on the ballot will go to voters in November 2018. Department of Education deputy general counsel Judy Bone cautioned the Education Committee to take care with its recommendations.

"I would tell you when you look at some of the changes in the articles, and how difficult it is to get something … out of the Constitution once it's in, you must consider any sort of proposal that you will make as permanent or semi-permanent," Bone advised. "And consider whether or not whatever the problem is can be more effectively addressed by legislation."

Less is more, said Messina, the FSBA executive director.

"We kind of land in the camp that we believe the Constitution is working, if adhered to," she said.

The commission's Education Committee meets again at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Tallahassee.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]


Amending the Florida Constitution

Once every 20 years, Florida convenes a Constitution Revision Commission to consider possible amendments. Voters must approve any proposed changes. Here are some key dates:

Oct. 6: Was the deadline for the public to submit ideas

Dec. 14: Last date currently scheduled for committee meetings

May 10, 2018: Date the commission must have proposals to Secretary of State

Nov. 6, 2018: Election day for amendment issues

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