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Fla. Schools Chief Stumps for Higher Standards

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Without any law to back him up, Florida's state schools chief is urging school districts to adopt higher academic standards on their own.

In May, Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed a bill that would have set new statewide standards defining minimum requirements for high school students. Lawmakers attached a controversial school-prayer provision to the standards bill, drawing the veto despite the Democratic governor's support for new standards.

"The establishment of higher standards is critical to improving Florida's system of public education," said Frank Brogan, the state education commissioner, who is now appealing to individual districts to approve the standards on their own.

"I am confident that the school boards and the parents in each community will ... recognize the importance of raising the bar to help them accomplish their goals," he added.

The new guidelines Mr. Brogan is pushing would require high school students--beginning with the class of 2000--to have a 2.0 grade-point average on a four-point scale to graduate from high school or to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities while they are in school. The measure also calls for graduates to have completed Algebra I or a comparable math class.

A total of 51 of the state's 67 school districts have chosen to enact all or some of the standards this fall, and education officials expect the measure to be mandatory for the state's 2.3 million students by next school year.

State education officials--nearly unanimous in their support for higher standards--are working on a new proposal for the next legislative session. (Please see "Chiles Vetoes Bill Allowing Student-Led Prayer," June 12, 1996.)

Inspired by Employers

School officials began drafting new standards in 1994, when Florida business leaders complained to the newly elected Republican commissioner that the state's high school graduates were lacking in the most basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills.

"The workplace was definitely the driving force," said David Mosrie, the state director of public schools for the Florida education department. "The demands of the work have risen. We want to prepare students as best we can with the essential skills for success in the 21st century."

Since 1983, Florida has required its high school graduates to have at least a 1.5 grade-point average. Attempts since then to raise graduation requirements have failed because of fear that higher standards will spur a higher dropout rate.

According to the education department, 95,336 students--17.7 percent of the high school population--had grade-point averages that fell between 1.5 and 1.99 in the 1994-95 school year.

Despite the large number of marginal students in the state, education officials have argued that students will perform at the level that's expected of them.

Proponents also point out that the academic requirements school districts have adopted to date for high school athletes have had little effect on participation.

"We're all concerned for the welfare of the students," Mr. Mosrie said. "But if we're clear about what we expect and give the students some lead time, they'll rise to the occasion."

Schools Sign On

At Superintendent John Stewart's urging, the Polk County School Board voted in July to enact the tougher academic requirements in its 76,000-student district this school year.

With the new standards in place, Mr. Stewart said in an interview, "[students] will be better prepared for college and a high-tech workforce."

Polk County has required students to maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities for the last few years, Mr. Stewart said, and "rather than lose kids, they've made the grade."

However, teacher unions in the state have raised concerns that the new standards will push the lowest achieving and lowest motivated students out on the streets.

Mr. Stewart concedes that more than 100 public school students in Polk County would not have graduated last May if the new standards had been imposed.

But he argued that teachers will now be better prepared to catch and remediate these students early on--before disinterest sets in.

"Because the standards emphasize a lifetime of learning," Mr. Stewart said, "we feel they're in the students' best interest."

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