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Retreating from a bad idea

By Tom Jackson
Published: July 7, 2014

About that plan to eliminate valedictorian and salutatorian designations from future Pasco County high school graduations: Suddenly it seems we’re closing in on an Emily Litella moment.

This is welcome news. Not because the district was about to embark on a dumbed-down, everybody-gets-a-trophy approach to education — although there was a little of that in the argument touting Latin standards (the varying degrees of “cum laude”) as a substitute — but because policy-makers were about to dump generations of honorable tradition to cure an administrative headache.

That’s simply bad form.

A week ago, acting on a recommendation by Superintendent Kurt Browning, the Pasco School Board voted 4-0 to do away with vals and sals beginning with the Class of 2018. Because sometimes the decision comes down to hundredths of a point. And sometimes students take courses specifically for their grade-point weight. And because dual-enrollment classes provide a bigger GPA bang than Advanced Placement.

And because the system can seem just a wee bit arbitrary and subject to gamesmanship, sometimes parents show up to bang their fists on desks on behalf of weepy students who wound up on the short end of a photo finish.

All of which sounds like reasons to fix it, not toss it.

And that, just now, seems to be the direction in which the district is headed. Following the national outcry that attended Saturday’s coverage of the school board’s vote on Fox News, Browning confessed in a note to a superintendent colleague that he was having second thoughts.

So, it seems, are school board members. Good.

As Browning wrote in an email from his undisclosed vacation location:

I have received a number of emails, more than I expected, voicing their displeasure with my position. It has not been an easy decision to make because of the political sensitivity of the topic. Because I have some time to think and clear my head, I want to make sure ... “the juice is worth the squeeze.” With all the other major issues that we are dealing with, I have to ask myself the question, “Is this something that really makes a difference in the grand scheme of things?”

There’s no heavy lifting in that question. Whether it’s a basketball national championship won on a fluky last-second shot, a Masters won with a 150-foot pitch in a playoff, a Super Bowl lost on the 1-yard line or a national election won by a breathtakingly scant handful of votes, the grand scheme loves champions, but it also honors those who compete in good faith without winning. Oftentimes, the heartache of a narrow loss inspires no less than the first-place trophy.

What’s worrisome was that this came up in the first place, and that four school board members (the fifth was absent) could be so easily buffaloed into going along. Luckily, the deciding vote isn’t until next month, so everybody has a chance to get it right. Which they will.