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Measure would lower hurdle for students aiming for A's

If Bush signs the bill, students will need only a 90 average, not 94, to earn an A.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida students will soon find it easier to earn an A, under a bill approved by the Legislature.

If Gov. Jeb Bush signs the measure as expected, school boards would be free to vote to abandon the numerical grading scale and assign only letter grades. If they don't, districts would be required to reset the grading scale to make students more competitive with peers in other states.

As it stands now, 94 percent through 100 represents an A. That would change to 90 through 100, the range used in most of the nation.

Eighty through 89 percent would be a B; 70 through 79 percent, a C; 60 through 69 percent, a D; and 59 percent and below would be an F.

"When you're locked in to 94 to 100, that's a very arbitrary scale," said state Sen. Anna Cowin, a Leesburg Republican who sponsored the measure.

"I think it's a fairness issue."

Cowin's measure is among a short list of changes that lawmakers have slated for the public schools. Most significant: a record $1-billion spending increase, including a state average of $280 more per student for the 2000-01 year.

"We have lots of money, and it's up to the school districts now to decide where they want to spend their money and what their priorities are," said state Rep. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and chairman of the House education budget committee.

Primarily, legislators' attention focused on higher education and a sweeping overhaul of the way the state governs schools from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. But several public school proposals are headed for the governor's desk.

Among them are Cowin's measure to reset the statewide grading scale.

High school students and parents have complained for years that the current scale puts them at a disadvantage when applying to out-of-state colleges, where admissions directors don't know about Florida's tougher standards.

"As a parent, I'm fully aware of the problem that young people have when applying to colleges," Cowin said.

Cowin's bill also would prohibit districts from using student attendance or behavior as a factor in academic grading, a practice many districts already have abandoned.

A more controversial proposal also awaits Bush's signature. Lawmakers approved a plan to grant private school tuition vouchers to disabled students, regardless of whether their schools receive poor grades from the state.

With close to 350,000 so-called "special needs" students statewide, the proposal could affect thousands of disabled students who aren't successful in public schools. The plans are opposed by teachers unions and the Florida School Boards Association.

The unions have challenged the state's original voucher program, which gives tuition vouchers to students in public schools rated F by the state for two years in a row.

A circuit court judge has ruled vouchers violate the state Constitution, but the program continues while Bush appeals the ruling.

State Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, sponsored the voucher expansion and said Bush supports his measure.

Other measures aimed at public schools also await Bush's signature:

MAGNET SCHOOLS: This measure eliminates a state university system rule slated to take effect in 2003 that would have forced magnet school students and others to give up electives in the arts, computers, vocational studies and ROTC. This year's high school freshmen would have been affected first.

If Bush approves the change as expected, high school students could continue taking multiple electives each year without jeopardizing their chances for admission to state universities.

SCHOOL SAFETY: A year after the Columbine High School killings in Colorado, lawmakers passed a list of measures aimed at preventing a similar event in Florida. Among them are a new state clearinghouse where school districts can share strategies for reducing violence and new requirements -- such as providing school blueprints to law enforcement agencies -- that most districts already follow.

Lawmakers did not set aside any money for a proposed pilot program to add more guidance counselors and psychologists at 18 schools.

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