Education board approves ‘innovative schools’ despite constitutional concerns

? The Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously approved sweeping waivers to two school districts, exempting them from most state laws and regulations governing public schools, despite concerns from the board’s own attorney that the law mandating the waivers is probably unconstitutional.

The waivers that were granted to the McPherson and Concordia school districts were the first under a 2013 law called the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act, which allows a certain number of districts to come out from under most state regulations if they offer a plan showing how doing so will improve education.

At the same time, though, the board attached conditions to the waivers and added new rules that were not included in the statute, giving the state board more oversight and control over how the new innovative schools system will be operated.

Board member Jim McNiece, who helped draft the additional conditions, said both the McPherson and Concordia districts agreed to the changes.

“I have to give them credit,” McNiece said. “They’ve done a great job in their districts and I think they feel a great responsibility for the future, that the innovative coalition board does not become a board that works outside the authority and the oversight of the state board.”

Under the new law, the first applications for innovative school status were reviewed and approved by a panel made up of Gov. Sam Brownback and the chairpersons of the House and Senate Education committees. Those districts now comprise the Coalition of Innovative Schools Board and they, in turn, review and approve all future members of the coalition.

The law only gives the state board authority to review the applications. And if the applications comply with all the conditions of the statute, the board is mandated to approve them and grant the waivers.

But in granting the two districts’ waivers, the board attached conditions that were not authorized in the law enacted by the Kansas Legislature, and which a subcommittee of the board drafted hastily over lunch immediately before the discussion.

They include a stipulation that the state Board of Education itself will appoint two voting representatives to the coalition board, and that the education commissioner or his designee will also serve as a voting member.

They also provide that the state board will have “direct responsibility and oversight” over the coalition board; that the state board will exercise “discretionary functions” when reviewing applications; and that the coalition board must report to the state board of education at least twice each year on its activities.

In addition, “The State Board will retain its constitutional authority and intends to carry out the responsibility as good stewards of public education which was entrusted by the Kansas Constitution and the electorate.”

Staff at the Kansas Department of Education had previously recommended denying both districts’ applications because they included requests for waivers from federal laws and regulations, including testing requirements and school nutrition regulations. The orders approved Tuesday only commit the state board to working with the districts to seek federal approval for those waivers.