Topeka — Kansas has a new law that will allow a maximum of 29 school districts to seek designation as “innovative,” which will make them exempt from certain state laws.
Supporters of the law say it will remove bureaucratic rules that hinder teaching. But opponents say the law is unnecessary because school districts already have a lot of room to innovate.
And don’t expect schools to be knocking down the doors for the official innovative-district status, state education officials said.
“It’s a very confusing bill,” Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said. “We don’t think any will be coming online at the beginning of the school year.”
Gov. Sam Brownback signed the legislation earlier this week.
Pilot program for five years
The measure, which takes effect July 1, establishes a pilot program that will allow 10 percent of the state’s 286 school districts to be designated as innovative school districts for five years. The innovative districts will be exempt from several state laws and regulations but still must conduct annual testing of students, comply with school finance laws and abide by laws dealing with health, safety and welfare. They also have to comply with special education, disability access and other federal statutes.
State Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the impetus for the bill came from his conversations with school superintendents.
“Over the years, several superintendents have indicated that from time to time certain rules and regs interfered with what they believed was in the best interest of being able to move forward in their district,” said Abrams, who also has served as chairman of the State Board of Education.
But when asked what specific regulations get in the way, supporters of the proposal usually mention federal laws, not state laws.
And the state education agency was not on board with the measure.
“We don’t see the need for this bill,” DeBacker said. She said schools currently have the ability to seek waivers of rules and regulations that they think are hindering their efforts.
“It just takes courageous leadership and a community of parents and students who want to do things differently,” she said. “We have many schools innovative right now.”
Districts take differing views of new law
The Kansas City, Kan., and McPherson school districts supported the innovative school district bill, as did the Kansas Policy Institute and the Kansas Association of School Boards.
But McPherson Superintendent Randy Watson said he wasn’t sure whether his school district would apply to become an innovative school district.
“Our board will discuss it,” Watson said. “Our board will want to make sure that the work we started won’t get derailed and want to see what advantages it would have for McPherson,” he said.
Three years ago, McPherson received a waiver from certain requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law through a locally pushed initiative that Watson said measured students in a more comprehensive manner.
Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said the new innovative-district law “is not even on our radar screen.”
He added, “I don’t know what laws are keeping us from being innovative. I don’t agree with every part of every rule and regulation that governs school districts, but neither the legislators nor the governor asked practitioners on what this could be. We had no role in writing the law.”
Some critics of the new law worry that the measure would allow districts to hire uncertified teachers.
But DeBacker said she didn’t think that was correct because the law requires the innovative districts to follow the state’s Quality Performance Act, which requires accredited schools to have licensed teachers.
Others said it would allow districts to opt out of state laws on collective bargaining with teachers, but school district officials said school boards would be unlikely to try to do that.
Under the law, the first two districts that apply for innovative status would have to be approved by Brownback, Abrams and Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, who is chair of the House Education Committee. The applications would then go to the State Board of Education for final approval within 90 days.
The bill also requires the State Board of Education to provide technical assistance to a school district that requests help in putting together an application for an innovative district.
Changing laws vs. seeking exemptions
If there are laws on the books preventing schools from their mission, critics say, the question becomes whether to just repeal those laws instead of creating a system where some districts must comply while others are exempted.
Abrams said that might be what happens in the future.
“However, it would probably be wise to let districts determine which laws, rules and regs actually interfere with their ability to do their job,” he said. “If it is shown that certain laws actually interfere with the education process, a good case could be made to repeal the law or laws.”
Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said the new law was perplexing.
“From the legislative standpoint, here they are saying, ‘Oh, my Lord, there are so many rules and laws people cannot be innovative, so we need to free them from all this,’ and then they pass bills putting more laws and rules and regulations on top of schools.”
Desetti cited a number of proposals that legislators have discussed this session that would put additional dictates on schools. Desetti asked, “Why not let schools teach?”