School districts around Florida are moving to keep thousands of struggling high school students in an alternative graduation program — and on track toward a standard diploma — even though the state told them they couldn't.
The reasons: first, a memo from the Florida Department of Education this week that "clarifies" its abrupt July 31 decision to end the program immediately. And second, signals from department that indicate it doesn't intend to stop districts planning to allow those students to complete it.
The new memo doesn't say districts can grandfather in students currently enrolled. But "if that's their interpretation, that's their interpretation," department spokesman Tom Butler said.
But will standard diplomas granted to those students be valid?
"That's probably a question for a lawyer," Butler said. "At this point, we're just trying to move forward."
The ruckus is over the "GED exit option," a piece of Florida diploma policy that affects several thousand students annually.
Most Florida high school students earn a standard diploma by earning 24 credits, maintaining a 2.0 GPA and passing the 10th-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But under the GED exit option, students who fell short on credits or grade point averages could still get a standard diploma if (1) they pass the GED and the FCAT, or (2) they pass the GED and earn a high enough score on a college entrance exam.
Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said last week the department had no choice but to end the program, after learning it didn't have legal authority to create it 21 years ago. But he also said the change would make a Florida diploma more valuable and the state's graduation rate, often criticized because it includes the GED exit option, more credible.
Districts immediately fired back. So did upset parents.
The result: a clarification memo, issued Wednesday. Beginning this fall, it says, students who complete the GED exit option will get a state of Florida high school equivalency diploma, which isn't a standard diploma but isn't a GED diploma either. According to statutes, it "shall have equal status with other high school diplomas for all state purposes, including admission to any state university or community college."
But the new memo doesn't address the fate of students currently in the GED exit option. And in the vacuum, districts are deciding for themselves.
Students now in the program "will exit out with a standard high school diploma," said Hillsborough district lobbyist Connie Milito.
"If you change the rules in the middle of the game, the push back becomes a roar, even from people who believe we ought to make the change," said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators.
One area parent is thrilled by what she reads as a reprieve. New Tampa resident Julie Cooke told Smith in an e-mail that her son Michael, a senior at Bowers-Whitley Career Center, was among students "you are throwing under the bus."
"Victory people!!!!" she wrote in another e-mail, after the new memo. "Current students are grandfathered in!!! Woo-hoo."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.