The sweeping education bill that Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law is a solid step forward. In the last week of the legislative session, lawmakers can preserve that momentum by rejecting bills that could give taxpayer money to untested online course providers and create too many opportunities for for-profit charters to take over underperforming schools.
The new education law recognizes that not all students are going to college and that it is not necessary to master Algebra II to earn a high school diploma. The law establishes a "scholar" diploma and one with a "merit" designation, which would allow students to take industry-certification courses, as a computer programmer or automotive technician, for example, in place of more traditional higher-level math and science courses. In rolling out the rules, it will be important to make sure "merit" diploma recipients are still ready for college if they decide to take that path.
The law also allows state universities to qualify as "pre-eminent research universities." The University of Florida and Florida State University already meet those standards. The law finally recognizes that treating all of the state's universities as equals does not foster excellence. The state needs flagship universities if Florida is to attract the top students and faculty.
The new law may be the Legislature's signature accomplishment on education this year, but there is more work to be done before Friday's adjournment. One Senate bill would crack down on some of the worst charter school abuses by stopping a charter school from spending more than $35,000 without its sponsor's approval if a charter is set to close or not be renewed. The bill would also bar charter school employees and their relatives from serving on the governing boards. Those provisions are part of a larger bill that includes some common sense changes regarding the new common core standards. It would forbid the state from implementing the new assessments until all schools and districts have the proven capacity to administer the tests.
But there is also cause for concern. While legislators recognize that teachers should be evaluated only on the students they personally teach, there appears to be little movement toward that basic fairness even as the state moves toward performance-based pay. And the parent trigger bill, SB 862, which would require county school boards to vote on parent-initiated turnaround plans at failing schools, is vulnerable to last-minute changes that could open the door too wide to for-profit charters or take away a local school board's authority.
A solid education bill is now law and will have an enormous impact in public schools and universities. But there are still five days for a lot to go right — or wrong — for students this session.