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    Lawmakers lower the grading scale, expand vouchers

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- For the first time since a statewide grading system was created 14 years ago, Florida's high school students may have an easier time making an A.

    It would take 90 percent, rather than 94 percent for an A grade. And it would be tougher to flunk under the new grading scale, part of a flurry of education bills approved on the final day of the Florida Legislature's annual session.

    Also approved: a significant expansion of a voucher program for disabled students. Under the legislation, thousands of students, from children with speech problems to serious handicaps, will be eligible for public dollars for private school. The legislation was a top priority of Senate President John McKay, whose daughter struggled with learning disabilities.

    The Legislature also approved giving tax breaks to corporations that contribute money to help send poor children to private school.

    The greatly expanded voucher programs, as well as the new grading scale, stirred debate among lawmakers divided on which direction Florida should go in education reform.

    The grading scale changes may not pass muster with Gov. Jeb Bush, who vetoed a similar bill last year, saying it would be considered a lowering of standards at a time when Florida is trying to improve public education.

    Bush's spokeswoman said the governor will have to review the bill approved Friday.

    Under the bill, the new statewide grading scale would be:

    90 to 100 percent for an A, rather than 94 to 100 now. An A grade has required 94 percent since 1987, when the Legislature first passed a statewide grading scale.

    80 to 89 percent for a B, rather than 85 through 93 now.

    70 to 79 percent for a C, rather than 77 to 84 percent now.

    60 to 69 percent for a D, rather than 70 to 76 percent now.

    59 percent or below for an F, rather than 69 percent now.

    Supporters say the changes will help Florida's students better compete for college admissions and scholarships. Students in other states already have the lower grading scale.

    "It sets a common standard between our states and the majority of other states," said state Rep. Jeffrey Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. "This is simply about equity and fairness."

    But state Rep. Carey Baker, R-Mount Dora, argued that the majority of students don't go on to college and that Florida, in effect, will be lowering standards for all students.

    "This is not about lowering any standard," Atwater shot back. "This is just about about establishing an equitable range for all students. So it's not about dumbing down a process."

    The House approved the bill 96-19, sending it to Gov. Bush for consideration. The Senate approved it earlier Friday.

    Democrats in the state House also tried unsuccessfully to defeat the voucher bill for students with disabilities. The bill was approved 76-39, paving the way for a potentially huge voucher program.

    There are some 340,000 children with a variety of disabilities in Florida's public schools. Under the legislation, establishing the John M. McKay Scholarships for Disabilities Program, parents will more easily be able to get public dollars for private school.

    Now a child is eligible if he or she does not make expected progress in at least two areas specified in a formal, individual education plan. The new legislation says only that parents "dissatisfied" with their child's progress can get a voucher. The average voucher now is $6,860.

    The program began as a pilot project in Sarasota in 1999, then expanded statewide. This school year, 982 students got the scholarships in 38 school districts. The new legislation removes caps that sought to limit the size of the program. The Department of Education earlier had estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 disabled students could get vouchers next year.

    The disability program already has eclipsed Gov. Bush's program to give vouchers to children in failing schools.

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