TALLAHASSEE — More changes are coming to Florida's public schools, colleges and universities.
On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott signed a sweeping education bill that will revamp the state's high school graduation requirements and place new emphasis on coursework that prepares students for high-tech careers. The law will also create two new diploma designations: one for teenagers seeking technical training and another for teenagers pursuing college-level classes.
The legislation will also:
• Enable state universities to qualify as "pre-eminent research universities" and receive additional money for online initiatives and high-tech degree programs.
• Allow some funding for state universities to be based on performance, rather than just enrollment.
• Allow state colleges to create a degree program that costs no more than $10,000.
• Provide financial incentives for schoolteachers whose students earn industry certification or post high scores on college-level exams.
• Require high school students statewide to take a course in financial literacy.
In some ways, the legislation represents a backpedaling from previous education laws. For more than a decade, Florida lawmakers have been adding challenging new classes and exams to the list of graduation requirements. The latest effort to reform the school system removes some of those obligations.
"The danger in the previous legislation was that it would drive more students away from high school (rather) than drawing them to success," Orange County superintendent Barbara Jenkins said. "Some of those courses, algebra II as well as chemistry as a graduation requirement, were just a little beyond what some of our students would need to be successful."
But the law also represents a step forward into uncharted digital terrain, and a renewed effort to link education to careers.
"This legislation . . . makes sure that we embed into our curriculum those job skills that are necessary for students to walk off the graduation stage and get real jobs in the real economy," said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former superintendent.
SB 1076 passed the Legislature this month with universal support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and the blessing of state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett. University presidents, school superintendents, parents, teachers and business leaders lavished praise on the proposal, too.
Gaetz said the bill had been in the works for more than a decade. But the efforts were fast tracked this year when superintendents expressed concerns about new graduation requirements that applied to the current class of ninth-graders.
Superintendents said the new standards — completing algebra II, and passing challenging end-of-course exams in algebra I, geometry and biology — were too tough, and would have prevented thousands of teenagers from earning a diploma.
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"Failing to act would have resulted in a bottleneck of students, who for a lack of passing a single test would be blocked from receiving a high school diploma, and thereby forever limiting their opportunities to succeed," Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
The revised requirements will apply to current freshmen and all future high school students, say lawmakers. Students won't have to take algebra II unless they want a new "scholar" designation on their diploma. That designation will also entail passing the algebra II end-of-course exam, earning two credits in a foreign language and enrolling in at least one college-level class.
Students will also have the option of "merit" designation, which will allow them to substitute industry-certification courses for more traditional courses in math and science. Industry certification could entail anything from automotive technician to Microsoft-certified technician to Sun-certified Java programmer.
All students must still pass the end-of-course exam in algebra I and a standardized test in language arts. But they will be able to customize the remaining requirements to fit their needs and interests by selecting, or declining, one or more designations.
Lawmakers insist that the new legislation won't water down the curriculum.
"These are strenuous, rigorous qualifications that are not that easy," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Montford conceded, however, that lawmakers might have gone too far in raising the standards over the past decade.
"Some of us were in opposition then," the former Leon County superintendent said. "The beauty was, even though we (made those initial changes), we could come back and adjust it."
The law signed Monday also has dramatic implications for higher education.
For one, it will enable state colleges to waive their fees in order to offer degrees for $10,000. All 23 Florida community colleges issuing bachelor's degrees recently accepted Scott's challenge to offer programs for that price.
What's more, beginning this summer, universities will be able to qualify as "pre-eminent research universities" based on student performance, retention rates, research spending and national rankings, among other factors. The University of Florida and Florida State University already meet the requirements, and will see extra money coming their way.
The University of Florida will use its $15 million to hire new faculty, president Bernie Machen said. The school will receive another $15 million to develop more online degrees and market them throughout the state.
"With this legislation, the University of Florida will take a step forward and become one of the pre-eminent universities in the country," Machen said.
Times/Herald staff writers Tia Mitchell, David Smiley and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.