Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday signed into law a sweeping education bill that rolls back graduation standards adopted just three years ago.
The far-reaching measure also sets the stage for the University of Florida to take the lead in online education in the state. The state's most prestigious university would gain the right to offer bachelor degrees completely online.
Scott predicted the measure would transform education and help high school graduates go down a pathway that would lead to a job.
"This legislation will help us take a giant step forward," Scott said.
The measure was passed overwhelmingly by the Florida Legislature and included top priorities of both Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.
The new law (SB 1076) makes changes to everything from testing requirements to the addition of a financial literacy requirement for high school students to learn about credit cards, debt and identity theft.
The main part of the legislation allows students to graduate from high school even if they don't complete tough classes in both math and science.
Legislators in 2010 raised the state's graduation requirements by adding Algebra II and science courses such as chemistry and physics. The goal was to align high school standards to the types of skills needed to attract high-wage jobs in the state.
But the law Scott signed removes those requirements, which is a position backed by school superintendents. Instead, college-bound students could opt to take tougher courses and earn a high school diploma that includes a "scholar" designation. Students also would be allowed to take career education courses or enroll in work-related internships.
Supporters of the measure insisted they were redesigning high school standards to give options to students who may not be interested in pursuing a college degree.
"The danger in the previous legislation was that it would drive more students away from high school than drawing them to success," said Orange County school superintendent Barbara Jenkins. "Some of those courses ... were just a little bit beyond what some of our students will need in order to be successful."
The new law leaves a gap for students who entered the ninth grade this past school year. They will still be required to pass Algebra II to graduate.
Weatherford acknowledged that was a glitch that legislators may want to fix.
Some of the lawmakers who opposed the bill questioned the idea behind it. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, noted that students of today will likely change careers several times over their lives. He cautioned about training students for an industry that might one day be a "dinosaur."
"I think we're much better off with a wide breadth of an education, allowing our students to get an education in many different subjects," Clemens said.
The new measure also removes requirements to pass end-of-course tests in biology and geometry to earn a diploma. Instead, the tests count as 30 percent of a student's final grade.
University officials supported the sweeping new law because of another part of it: It will allow for the designation of "preeminent state research" universities.
UF, which meets the criteria, will be allowed to start an online institute in 2014 to offer bachelor's degrees online. This was a high priority for Weatherford, who said it was time that the state expanded its digital offerings to students.
The cost of the online courses could not be more than 75 percent of the tuition charged to Florida residents who attend school at the Gainesville campus. UF will get $15 million in the coming year to carry out its new mission.
"I think with this legislation the University of Florida will take a step forward to become one of the preeminent universities in the country," said UF President Bernie Machen.
The new "preeminent" designation also applies to Florida State University, which is eligible for extra money to help it attract national known scholars to the faculty. The new law also gives UF and FSU the authority to mandate that incoming freshmen take up to 12 hours of courses that could not be bypassed through Advanced Placement courses in high school.