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November 11, 2003
Q. What was it about the One Florida Initiative that initially caught your eye and that of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University?
A. Well, there were two things that were very important. One was that very large civil rights struggle in Florida where you had the biggest civil rights demonstration in many years and also the litigation filed by the NAACP. That was of interest to us, but the main reason that we were interested was because we were working very actively on research related to the issues that were before the courts in the affirmative action battles. The One Florida plan was very relevant to one of the two issues that we knew was going to go to the Supreme Court, which is, was there a good alternative to affirmative action, and of course, there were sweeping claims in Florida that there was and that they had it, so we had better look at it to see what it was actually all about.
Q. In your report, you said within the first few days that it became "abundantly clear that what happened in Florida differed in almost every important respect from the official claims." What did you and your team find to lead you to that conclusion so quickly, and did that surprise you?
A. Well, it did surprise me because I would have thought that journalists and academicians in Florida would have looked at it to see if there was any substance to the claims. I was really disappointed to see that they hadn't. We found right away, for example, when we went to the campuses that most of them hadn't had affirmative action anyway. It [One Florida] certainly couldn't be an option to affirmative action because they weren't practicing affirmative action. Only a couple of the campuses really had substantial affirmative action plans, and only the University of Florida had a major plan that they were relying on. Most of the other campuses really weren't very competitive on a national scale.
So, first of all, it wasn't replacing something that existed because [affirmative action] really hadn't existed in most of the places. Secondly, unlike the Texas plan, on which the governor's people said that the Florida plan was modeled, it doesn't authorize students to have the right to go to the flagship campus, the University of Florida. It only authorizes people to go to campuses that they probably didn't really want to go to and probably could have gone to anyway.
Then we thought, OK, how many people are technically eligible who wouldn't have been eligible just under the normal Florida admissions standards. We were stunned to see that that number was trivial -- a couple of hundred people in the whole state.
We also looked at what kind of mechanism there was to help those people who were technically eligible who wouldn't have been otherwise, and we found that there really wasn't any. The thing that really stunned us was the report the governor had issued about its success, which had been covered all over the country, but had been issued before the initiative even took effect. It [began] after the admissions season was over for the competitive slots that it [One Florida] technically took shape.
Q. So, why do you think Gov. Jeb Bush issued Executive Order 99-281 that created One Florida?
A. One of the things that I try to do is not psychoanalyze people that I don't know or make claims about their motives. His people told us during our interviews that they had been advised by people from Texas, particularly from his brother's administration, that affirmative action was going to go down and that they needed an alternative. I'm sure the existence of Ward Connerly's campaign was another factor, but I think part of it was based on what turned out to be a deeply inaccurate understanding of what was happening to the law, kind of a generalization, from the Texas decision to what would happen to Florida if it were challenged in court.
Q. But, 1999 wasn't exactly the best of times for affirmative action. If not, One Florida, what should Gov. Bush have done in finding an alternative to a controversial policy?
A. Well, you know, President Clinton faced the same kind of problem several years earlier. There was some real hostility [toward the concept of affirmative action] around the country, but what he did was to explain the issues and came up with the "Mend It, Don't End It" policy that was accepted by the country. That's what leadership is about on race relations.
Q. Help me put One Florida in context. What have other states done in addressing the controversies surrounding affirmative action?
A. There was no other state in the country in which the elected officials abolished affirmative action. In other places, it was either forced by referendum or by court decision. So, Florida is really unique in being the only state to do this, without being coerced anyway by its elected officials. I think that's striking. You probably know that even Newt Gingrich's Congress, perhaps the most conservative Republican Congress we've had for many generations, hasn't passed any anti-affirmative action legislation. So, Florida really stands out as a place where political leaders decided to end affirmative action.
Q. The Supreme Court finally did rule on affirmative action in the Michigan case. Do you think that ruling did more to justify affirmative action or alternatives like One Florida?
A. Well, an essential issue in that case was whether things like One Florida were alternatives. If they were real alternatives and that had been persuasive to the court, as the Bush administration Justice Department had argued, they wouldn't have made this decision because basically the court could have set standards to say yes, there is a viable alternative and you can't consider race. The Court, however, did not consider percent plans a viable alternative, and they also noted other things about percent plans that are negative such as taking discretion away from college officials. If you read the decision, it's clearly hostile to percent plans as a solution.
Q. It sounds like the high court undercut an essential argument that Gov. Bush made in support of One Florida.
A. Right. They took the worst court ruling in the country and assumed that that was the way the Supreme Court would go, and they were wrong.
Q. The Talented 20 is a key part to One Florida, and your team concluded that this particular program shouldn't be seen as a panacea to boosting minority college enrollment.
A. The Talented 20 Plan looked really fascinating when we first heard about it because Talented 20 looked like it was going to be much more broad reaching that the Ten Percent Plan in Texas.
But, when you really look at how the Talented 20 plan, what kind of rights it creates and what kind of mechanisms there were to implement them and how many people were helped that wouldn't have been helped otherwise, it all disappears into a cloud of smoke because very few additional people get eligible, there really is no mechanism to help them, and they don't have the right to go to the best campuses. It's much worse than what was done by [former Gov.] George W. Bush in Texas.
Q. Your study also raises other concerns. Care to elaborate?
A. Basically, the Talented 20 Plan requires you to complete courses that aren't available in all of the high schools in Florida, and it doesn't have a mechanism to make them available. The theory is that kids can take the courses online via the Internet, but I think anybody who's been a teacher knows that's not equivalent in any meaningful way.
Q. Your study did raise some key concerns, but it didn't generate much of a follow-up here. Why do you think that is?
A. I think one of the basic problems that we have right now in discussing serious public issues in this country is that we're in sound-bite politics, and nobody digs into issues. People can go make announcements about the success of things without anyone saying, "Wait a minute! Let's see how this all works." I think people need to realize that if they're going to make their decisions on that kind of superficial level, that they're going to get smoke and mirrors most of the time.
Q. So, what does One Florida need to work effectively, much less be the model to replace affirmative action.
A. The University of Texas, as soon as the Supreme Court clearly overturned the Hopwood case in Texas and authorized the consideration of race, said they were going to go back to affirmative action and elements of the percent plan.
I think the best solution is to have both of these things and to have real mechanisms to make them work, to create the right to access to the competitive campuses, and to have support systems and financial aid systems like they have at the University of Texas. In addition, campuses should be authorized to resume using race as one of the several criteria in admitting students, which is clearly authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court, a very conservative court.
Interview by editorial writer Douglas C. Lyons
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Gary Orfield is a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. He is a recognized expert in the studies of civil rights, education policy and minority opportunities. He is the co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, a think tank that has researched the several policies involving affirmative action, including the One Florida Initiative's Talented 20 Program.
The story was accompanied by a quote: "One of the basic problems that we have right now in discussing serious public issues in this country is that we're in sound-bite politics, and nobody digs into issues."