(USA Today) -- A five-year academic "road map" for Florida public school students is angering some educators and civil rights groups, who note that it sets different proficiency goals for African-American, Latino and white students, among others.
The strategic plan is actually the first half of an envisioned 10-year, non-binding guide that pushes schools to eliminate Florida's historic achievement gap by the 2022-23 school year. Approved this week by the Florida State Board of Education, the interim plan sets out 2017-18 goals in reading and math that differ by ethnic and socio-economic groups: For instance, it requires that 88% of white students, but only 74% of African-American students, be proficient in reading.
READ | Florida state Board of Education's strategic plan (PDF)
RELATED | Fla. Dept. of Education not backing down from plan
That difference has ignited what one local newspaper called a "firestorm" in Florida.
"All children should be held to high standards and for them to say that for African-Americans the goal is below other students is unacceptable," Urban League of Palm Beach County President Patrick Franklin told the (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Sun Sentinel.
In a hastily arranged press call on Thursday, Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said critics get it wrong: Florida has "very aggressive" achievement targets for poor and minority kids - more aggressive than for white, middle-class students, in fact, since they need to make up more ground.
"This plan does not set lower standards for any student or any subgroup," she said, noting that by the 2022-23 school year, the plan expects all students to work at or above grade level.
"Florida believes that every child can learn," Stewart said.
Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for low-income and minority students, said Florida officials could have described the interim plan in a "less inflammatory way." But she said it's wrong to criticize the plan, which her group designed.
"It is realistic, but it is also a stretch for most schools," she said.
For many Florida schools that serve large numbers of poor and minority students, the road map means that "they're going to have to up their game - and they're going to have to up their game fast."
She called it "a sensible, ambitious goal" that doesn't sugarcoat the neediest students' low proficiency levels. For instance, while it seeks only 74% reading proficiency for African-American students, it notes that only 38% were proficient last year, far fewer than white students, at 69%. It pushes for 36% more African-American students to become proficient in five years, vs. only 19% more white students.
Wilkins said about 20 states have adopted similar guidelines to qualify for waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Such guidelines demand "more improvement, and faster improvement, for the kids who are furthest behind. If people focused on that ... we might get a little further without the fireworks."