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Sweeping education bill heads to Gov. Rick Scott's desk

A bill that would revamp the requirements for high-school graduation and make dramatic changes to the state university system is headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

On Friday, the House voted unanimously to support a Senate bill that would create different designations for high school diplomas: one for advanced students and one for students headed directly into the workforce.

The sweeping education bill would also designate a "preeminent university" based on student performance, retention rates, research spending, national rankings and endowment size, among other factors. That university would be required to create a fully online arm.

"This is a transformational bill," House Speaker Will Weatherford said after the vote. “It’s one that will change the trajectory of the education system… To be standing here on week six and sending this bill to the governor’s desk is a big deal.”

On the K-12 side, students would no longer need to pass the algebra II end-of-course exam to graduate from high school. A passing score would only be necessary for students wishing to have a "scholar" designation added to their diploma. Those students would also have to earn two credits in a foreign language, and pass at least one college-level class.

Students could also earn a "merit" designation by earning industry certification in one or more fields. 

Rep. Janet Adkins, who chairs the House K-12 education subcommittee, said the measure would help keep high-school students engaged in their studies by recognizing their diverse interests and needs.

"The whole purpose of this bill is to connect the skills of our students with the needs of our employers, and to recognize that not every student in the state of Florida is going to go to college," said Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican.

Adkins rejected concerns that the measure would create a "sub-class" of diplomas. 

"It’s the same standard high school diploma for both of these designations," she said. "Regardless of which designation is on their diploma, [students] are going to be college ready."

Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the Miami Republican who chairs the House higher education committee, called the university preeminence provision "a catalyst for innovation."

The preeminent university would receive funding to create an online learning institute, expand its entrepreneurs-in-residence program, and institute a master's degree in cloud computing.

"We’re going to have highly recognized preeminent universities and we are going to have a high recognized online university," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Last year, Scott vetoed legislation that would have allowed "preeminent" state research universities to raise tuition and fees at differentiated rates each academic year. Nuñez has said she expects this year's version to become law because it doesn't have that provision.