The sweeping education bill signed into law last week by Gov. Rick Scott enjoyed nearly universal support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and received high praise from superintendents, teachers and other educators.
But not from Hernando County School District superintendent Bryan Blavatt.
His sticking point: the creation of two different high school diploma designations - one for teenagers seeking technical training and another for those pursuing college-level classes.
"I think it could lead to a real strong feeling of the haves and the have-nots," Blavatt said shortly after Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law. "I just feel like it's a move back to what was going on when I was in high school 50 years ago."
That's the type of concern that has stymied past efforts in Florida to differentiate diplomas.
One recent example: During the 2012 session, Rep. Bryan Nelson, a Republican from Apopka, filed a bill that would have created a career-oriented path to high school graduation for Florida teens. It never made it out of committee.
So what's the difference?
That bill would have created an entirely different career diploma, not just a designation. Standard diploma recipients would have needed to finish eight elective credits; career diploma students would have needed to earn seven credits in career or technical training, with no less than a C grade-point average, and one-half credit in career preparation or planning.
Though in the minority, Blavatt is not the only one concerned with the move.
When the proposal first surfaced, it met some resistance from the Foundation for Florida's Future, former Gov. Jeb Bush's education think tank. Executive director Patricia Levesque opposed dropping geometry from the graduation requirements and voiced concerns about creating a watered-down path to graduation.
Citing the many changes made to the bill, the foundation changed its tune in the end.
Lawmakers have insisted that the new law won't water down the curriculum, saying the qualifications needed to graduate with either diploma designation are strenuous and both result in a standard diploma.
All students will need to take 24 credit hours and pass standardized exams in language arts and Algebra I. They will no longer have to pass end-of-course exams in geometry and biology to graduate. Instead, those exams would count for 30 percent of a student's final grade in that subject.
A "scholar" designation will be given to students pursuing the college-level classes, and a "merit" designation to those pursuing technical training.
The revised requirements will apply to current freshmen and all future high school students.
The law doesn't force students to choose a designation and doesn't set a deadline for when they need to make their decision.
Statewide, school superintendents lauded the move, citing concerns that a new, more rigorous curriculum to be implemented by 2014 would prevent thousands of students from earning a diploma. They also felt the new law would help students be more engaged in their schoolwork and less likely to drop out.
Edward Fletcher, an assistant professor in the department of adult, career and higher education at the University of South Florida, said the "college for all" mentality is not necessarily the only way to succeed in high school.
"I'm thinking that people are starting to realize that we can't just pigeonhole all students into one type of track," Fletcher said. "The data doesn't support that."
Ideally, he said, "we want everyone to get some kind of post-secondary education after high school, but in reality that's not happening. People are starting to realize the importance of career and technical education."
While Blavatt said he understands the need to prepare students for the workforce, he doesn't want to see a situation where "you have one group that is clearly in the rarefied air."
That could create a greater disparity among students, which he says is already a significant issue in Florida.
"I'd love to be wrong," he said. "My concern is that we may be going back to what we did before that wasn't successful."
His biggest concern, he says, isn't that there will be a watered-down curriculum - it's that students might be discouraged from seeking out high-level courses.
Creating two classes of students has long been a concern of tracking programs, said Pedro Villarreal, a clinical assistant professor of higher education administration with the University of Florida. Also, these programs have often funneled students based on race and socioeconomic class.
"That unfortunately has been the historical legacy of previous tracking programs," he said.
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.
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New high school graduation requirements
- To earn a standard diploma, students must take 24 credit hours and pass standardized exams in language arts and Algebra I.
- For a scholar designation, students must complete the requirements for a standard diploma, plus complete at least one college-level course, earn two credits in a foreign language, and pass end-of-course exams in Algebra II, biology and history.
- For a merit designation, students must complete the requirements for a standard diploma plus earn industry certification in one or more fields. Students seeking a merit designation can substitute some industry courses for advanced science and math courses.