Editor’s note: It’s no secret that Patricia Levesque, the executive director of both of Jeb Bush’s education foundations, has a reputation as a hard-charging ed reformer. So it’s definitely noteworthy to hear her take on possible changes to Florida’s school grading formula. “With Common Core coming online and a lot of other things being tasked of our schools and teachers, do we need to take a look at getting back to basics?” she tells the News Service of Florida. “So many things are added that maybe the calculation needs to be a little simpler, a little clearer.” Levesque also comments on the possibility of Florida lawmakers considering a “parent trigger” bill for a third time last year, and what one of the foundations’ top issues is likely to be next year. Here’s the Q&A as it was distributed in full this week and, as far as we can tell, published nowhere else.
Patricia Levesque runs the state-focused Foundation for Florida’s Future and the national Foundation for Excellence in Education. Both were created by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Levesque and Bush have successfully pushed the Common Core curriculum standards, school choice and data-driven school and teacher assessments. They’ve also strongly supported the controversial parent-petition bill, which died on 20-20 votes in the Senate the last two years.
Levesque served as Bush’s deputy chief of staff while he was governor; before that, she spent six years as a key staffer in the Florida House. She is married to George Levesque, general counsel to the Florida Senate, and they have two children.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Patricia Levesque:
Q: What do you say to the social conservatives who are fighting Common Core?
LEVESQUE: What I would say to conservatives specifically is that the Common Core State Standards movement is a very conservative movement. It is actually a great example of federalism at work. It’s where state chiefs and state governors got together and said, “Let’s do something in common that will help us all in our individual states.” And so they got together, over years, and developed a common set of high standards in reading and math, and that became the state standards movement.
Actually, conservatives have always been champions of high standards and American exceptionalism. And if you really read the actual standards, you’ll see that it goes back to original texts, requires close reading of the Constitution and the Preamble and the Declaration of Independence — really conservative documents. And the standards movement is something that conservatives have for a very long time been leaders of.
The other thing that I would say to conservatives specifically is that the concerns that they’re raising — the concerns of the federal government telling our teachers exactly what textbooks to use in their classrooms, or concerns about the federal government data-mining our individual students’ private records. Those are very legitimate concerns. They just happen to be misplaced against Common Core, because those things aren’t true about Common Core. But they’re legitimate concerns that all parents should be vigilant to make sure aren’t happening in other aspects of education.
Q: Will Florida be ready for Common Core?
LEVESQUE: I am very optimistic that we will be ready. I think what we have is a governor that is supportive of Common Core. We have legislative leaders who are supportive of the standards, a fantastic education commissioner who has his top people really focused on how are we making sure our school districts have the resources. When I say “resources,” (I mean) the training for their teachers to know how to teach the standards more deeply.
I think they’re tackling a really ambitious effort to have summer institutes to give teachers the training that they need in how to teach harder standards and teach more deeply, and their goal is to train 30,000 teachers, I want to say this summer. And all the summer institutes they’ve had have been over-subscribed. Teachers are coming in numbers — they’re over-packed — and teachers are wanting this information. I think that’s a great sign.
Q: Is the parent petition bill coming back next year? Will you include the Simmons amendment (giving school boards the ultimate decision on a parent petition to change a failing school)?
LEVESQUE: I really don’t know. I think we’ll have a (foundation) board meeting, and the board will discuss it. I think, being really honest: How do you get it past the Senate? I mean, it’s the same Senate, even with the Simmons amendment. There (were) only 20 votes. So we’re going to have to take a really hard look at what other things we can do to really empower these parents who typically don’t have a very strong voice in their child’s education. I mean real leverage in getting changes that they want to have happen.
I think one of the tragedies of the debate last year is that we really didn’t focus on what happened in California when the law was put in place. And what happened was, parents who just wanted a computer lab — a computer lab, a single computer lab — or they just wanted after-school tutoring or more programs for non-English speaking students to help them learn and acquire English skills, they were able to use the power of that petition process to get those things that they had been wanting, because they had some leverage. They had some leverage to say, “Give us these things that we want or we’re going to submit petitions on things you, (the district) school board, don’t want.” Really giving parents power was the whole thrust of that bill.
(Would the Simmons amendment mitigate that power?) There were lots of versions, I think, that were being discussed, and so I’d have to go back and really see what version of the Simmons amendment you would be talking about. I think the goal of the bill was, give parents a real say. And we’ll continue to look for ways to do that, even regardless of whether we come back with that parent empowerment petition or not.
Q: School grades — does the Florida system need to be changed?
LEVESQUE: So Florida has had school grades, A through F, for about 15 years now. Lots of other states now are looking to Florida because we have been able to move from third-from-the-bottom to being in the top 10 in elementary-student performance for several years. And one of the great factors, along with our great teachers, has been this transparent accountability system, where parents know A-B-C-D-F. That means a certain level of student learning is going on at the school.
And so we’ve had a lot of changes over the last 15 years. They’ve been gradual changes. When our students were ready, the bar was raised and our schools rose and met the bar. The last two years, there have been a lot of changes, a lot of them federally required because of the waiver. And so we probably need to take a look at: With Common Core coming online and a lot of other things being tasked of our schools and teachers, do we need to take a look at getting back to basics? So many things are added that maybe the calculation needs to be a little simpler, a little clearer. And so it would be a good thing, I think, for the state to take a pause while we’re looking at moving to Common Core and figure out: What are the fundamentals that we want in the calculation? What do principals really want to be measured on that emphasize student learning? What’s the clearest way to measure that? And then move forward with that when we have these new higher tests, higher standards, common cut scores, so that we’ll really know how our students are doing compared to students in Georgia.
So it’s a great opportunity, I think, a great time to re-look at the calculation and streamline it.
Q: What’s your next education policy step in Florida? What does the state still need?
LEVESQUE: The number-one thing — our number-one issue last year — we didn’t make any traction on. I think people interviewed us a lot on the parent empowerment bill. It was a very important bill. It was one of seven things that we advocated for, but our number-one priority didn’t make much progress at all. So that will continue to be a number-one priority for us next year. It’s something that I feel strongly about as a mom with two younger children, and that is bringing digital learning into the classroom.
You know, my son and my daughter were playing on my iPhone and my iPad and learning their letters at 15 months, by playing games and being interactive with technology. We have a digital divide, not just in our state but in our country, where some children have access to technology at a very early age and some children do not. And yet if you look at most of the jobs that we do, we interact with technology. We have to use computers or tablets or other forms of technology, and we have to be able to apply our learning to that technology.
So one of the foundation’s number-one priorities is to move to a one-to-one student-to-technology-or-digital-device ratio by 2016. That’s something that we would really want to happen. We want to see the state taking steps to get there, which means infrastructure for the Internet, wireless systems so that whatever device the child has, they can take it home and have wireless services at home so that the children who don’t have the Internet access at home can have access to do their learning and learn from technology at home. We want teachers to be skilled to integrate the digital devices into their classroom — not like in my son’s classroom, where the computer was in the corner and the students, if they were really well-behaved, got to earn five minutes on the computer.