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Despite Questions, Kansas Education Board Approves Two 'Innovative Districts'

UPDATED

Kansas's Interim Education Commissioner is looking at the recent approval of the state's first two "Public  Innovative Districts" as an opportunity to pilot new programs and assess their impacts before deciding whether to expand them to other school districts.

"We now have a controlled group of school districts that might be able to start piloting some things in our new accreditation model before we roll it out in a couple of years," Brad Neuenswander, the interim commissioner, said in an interview with Education Week on Friday.  "I think it's just going to be a good experience for both."

The state board of education last week approved the first two applications under the 2013 Innovative Districts Act for two rural districts—Concordia and McPherson— and will work with them to review regulations that may be getting in the way of new initiatives and find ways to work around them, Neuenswander said.

Based on the law, innovative districts are exempt from nearly all laws and regulations governing K-12 schools, except where specifically noted, if they can demonstrate that the exemptions would benefit students.

Concordia, a North Central Kansas school district with a student population of 1,072, requested four exemptions, including from the state's licensure laws on requiring "highly qualified" teachers, accreditation requirements, and rules regarding awarding credits for extracurricular activities. According to its application, the school district wants to be able to make those decisions locally, to continue to partner with businesses to allow students to continue taking welding, wind technology, and other certification courses. It also wants leeway to be able to hire teachers and professionals who have been vetted locally.

McPherson, a K-12 district of 2,300 students, also sought exemptions from regulations on state requirements that included food-service, teacher licensure, and in-service training.

Despite the exemptions, the districts are still required to participate in the state's math and reading assessments or another alternative assessment approved by the local school board, and to comply with state financial requirements, health and safety requirements, special education, disability access, and federal regulations, according to the law.

The state Board of Education's approvals last week were notable because members had expressed serious misgivings about the law, and because the law itself was unclear on the board's role in these new districts. One part of the law technically allows the innovative districts— which will be governed by the Coalition of Innovative Schools Board, comprised of the innovative schools themselves—to operate outside of the state board of education purview, while another part of the law indicated that the board may still be involved in drafting guidelines.

The board's hesitance was due to the law's lack of clarity not resistance to innovation, Neuenswander said.

Neuenswander said the board and the two districts created a subcommittee, consisting of  two board members and the two schools superintendents, to craft guidelines that would allow the state board of education to continue to play an important role.

Among the conditions on which they agreed:

  • The board of education will appoint two of its own voting representatives to the Coalition of Innovative Schools Board, and the commissioner—or a designee—will also serve as a voting member;
  • The board of education will have "direct responsibility and oversight"  over the coalition board;
  • The board of education will exercise "discretionary  functions" when reviewing applications;

The schools are expected to start operating as Innovative School Districts in August, though there are lingering questions about the constitutionality of the law that set the plan in motion.

Under Kansas' state constitution, the 10 elected members of the state Board of Education are responsible for overseeing public schools.  The law, as it's written, puts the oversight of the Innovative School Districts under the newly created Coalition of Innovative Schools Boards, which will be made up of the superintendents of those schools.

The former acting state education commissioner, Diane DeBacker, askedthe attorney general to review the law's constitutionality,  but as of Friday Attorney General Derek Schmidt had not provided one. A spokesman for Schmidt's office did not respond to a call for comment on Friday.  [UPDATE (June 16): Clint Blaes, a spokesman for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, said Monday afternoon that the attorney general had declined in May to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act.  He said he did not know the reasons.]

In the interim, the schools were moving forward, but they were doing so with the state board's input.  However, they still wanted an answer to the constitutional question, Neuenswander said. 

"They just want to make sure that if we're doing something, we don't want seven years from now someone challenging it and saying that everything you did seven years ago was unconstitutional," he said.  "You just don't want to operate under a cloud."

Twenty-nine of the state's school districts initially were eligible to apply to become Innovative Districts when the law first passed, but further changes after the passage expanded the potential pool of applicants, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.

The law has met with mixed reviews, including some skepticism from some school and union officials, who were concerned about its impact on collective bargaining. But some schools that support the law have said that relaxing regulations would enhance their ability to better prepare students for college and careers, allowing students to gain work experience before they graduate from high school.

Others, particularly those in rural areas, argued that dispensing with teacher licensure requirements would widen the candidate pool, giving the districts latitude to hire professionals who are already working in the field and college professors.

The Coalition of Innovative Districts, which is now comprised of Concordia and McPherson and the state representatives, will review the applications of the other six schools that applied to become Innovative District Schools.

Neuenswander said that for now, the two schools will present their plans to the state board, which will then review them and help them meet their goals. The  board can only waive regulations that fall under its purview, but would work with the schools on other state and federal guidelines, he said.

The state is also three years into reworking its accreditation process, and the innovative schools districts  will give it a way to observe the proposed changes before they are implemented statewide. 

"A lot of our regulations were written 20 years ago, and we don't educate kids like we did 20 years ago," Neuenswander said. "So I think it would be a good way for the board to work collaboratively on some things that can help guide some of our future regulations."

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