‘Innovative district’ applications raising eyebrows for some education officials

Eight Kansas school districts have filed applications under a new state law to exempt themselves from many regulations governing K-12 education, and some of those are raising concerns within education circles.

But superintendents of those districts say the waivers would allow them to address unique issues in their communities and better prepare students for college or the workforce.

The waivers are being made available under a new state law, the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act, which was passed by the 2013 Legislature on a largely party-line vote and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback. It allows up to 29 districts, or 10 percent of the state’s 286 school districts, to be exempt from most laws and regulations if they submit a plan showing how that flexibility will help student achievement.

The eight school districts that submitted applications before the Dec. 1 deadline include: Santa Fe Trail in Osage County; Hugoton in southwest Kansas; Seaman in Shawnee County; McPherson in central Kansas; Concordia in north-central Kansas; Blue Valley in Johnson County; Sterling in south-central Kansas; and Kansas City, Kan.

Lawrence superintendent Rick Doll said after passage of the bill that the local district had no interest in applying for the exemptions.

College and career preparation

Several of the districts are seeking waivers that would enable them to focus on preparing students for college and careers by helping them earn college credit and significant work experience even before they graduate from high school.

At the Santa Fe Trail school district in Osage County, for example, Superintendent Steve Pegram wants to offer multiple pathways for students to get a high school diploma, including one that would require only two full years of classroom work in core subjects of English, math, science and social studies.

The rest could be career training at a community college or technical school, followed by a year of on-the-job work experience that would involve only minimal supervision by the district to ensure the training program is meeting academic standards.

To do that, Santa Fe Trail, which has 1,050 students in K-12, is seeking a waiver from the state’s high school graduation requirements, which were raised in 2005 to require more courses in core subjects, a move that district officials think was unnecessary.

“My point of contention is we were trying to raise our test scores in the state more than what was best for the kids,” Pegram said. He said students can gain the additional skills and knowledge through job training and work experience as well as they can through classroom instruction.

But Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said graduation requirements and other academic standards were not enacted lightly, and she’s troubled at the idea of waiving them in favor of sending students out to work.

“Job experience and internships can have a valuable role, but it has to have a connection to education,” Godfrey said. “When you loosen those rules, it’s very troubling. When they don’t even want to have oversight over the work the kids are doing, it does seem more like work than school.”

Teacher licensing requirements

Like many of the districts applying, Santa Fe is also seeking a waiver from state teacher licensure requirements so that industry professionals, not to mention college instructors, can teach and supervise high school students without all of the formal teacher preparation that is normally required.

But in the tiny Hugoton school district — enrollment 1,179 — in the southwest corner of Kansas, Superintendent Mark Crawford said his district needs a waiver to help relieve a troubling shortage of teachers, especially in math and science.

Crawford said it’s hard for Hugoton to recruit fully licensed teachers to that area of the High Plains, even though the district offers a higher-than-average starting salary of more than $38,000. Many of Hugoton’s teachers come from Colorado and the Panhandle areas of Texas and Oklahoma, Crawford said, all of which have different licensing requirements from Kansas.

“We’ve always filled our positions, but not always with what is considered a ‘highly qualified’ teacher,” Crawford said, referring to the state requirement that teachers be fully licensed to teach the subjects and grade levels in which they’re assigned, or have a “plan of study” to become fully licensed within two years.

“We’ve spent an inordinate amount of money and time getting them coursework for what the licensure board considers plans of study,” Crawford said.

But Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker noted that the requirement for highly qualified teachers comes from federal legislation, and she’s concerned about the consequences if the state starts waiving that requirement.

“What happens if a parent complains that their kid isn’t being taught by a highly qualified teacher?” she asked. “Are we (the Department of Education) on the hook for that?”

DeBacker noted that under the new law, the Department of Education has no say in deciding whether to grant the waivers. The first two waivers will be decided by Gov. Brownback and the chairs of the House and Senate education committees. Later applications will be reviewed by a coalition board made up of the districts that have already received waivers.

The Department of Education opposed passage of the bill, and has since asked for an attorney general’s opinion about whether it is constitutional. Although Attorney General Derek Schmidt declined to issue an opinion, saying the issue is part of the pending school finance litigation, DeBacker said the agency plans to refile its request after the Kansas Supreme Court decides that case.

If approved, the waivers being sought this year would be effective in the 2014-2015 school year. Officials in Brownback’s office said it hasn’t been decided when he will meet with the legislative leaders to review those applications.