A Kansas experiment looks to test whether state rules piled on schools smother the possibility of a better classroom.
By BRAD COOPER
The Kansas City Star
Eight school districts, including Blue Valley and Kansas City, Kan., want designation as “innovative” — a title freeing them from a hodgepodge of rules they believe hinders learning.
The law, passed last year, came from conservatives wanting to give local districts greater flexibility to tailor schooling to the student.
“It will be phenomenal to see what these individual districts do,” said Republican state Rep. Kasha Kelley, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
Critics argue that the rules built up over the years aren’t arbitrary, that they’ve evolved to make sure local schools meet standards designed to produce a solid education.
They see innovative schools — some call them “charter schools in disguise” — as an assault on public education by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafted model legislation for the program.
Those critics say exemption from most state school rules fits a political agenda hoping to end collective bargaining for teachers.
With some exceptions, the law says a qualifying district “shall be exempt from all laws and rules and regulations” applied to school districts.
State Rep. Melissa Rooker opposed the innovative schools bill last year. She believes the law is so broad that it’s unclear what rules can be waived.
“The bill is not clear as to what does and does not apply,” said Rooker, a Fairway Republican. “There are a tremendous number of questions that have been raised about it that have not been satisfactorily answered.”
So far in their applications, school districts have requested waiving laws for student testing, teacher certification and graduation requirements, among other things. A Topeka district applied but left open what rules it would want waived.
The law allows up to 29 of the state’s 286 school districts to qualify as innovative. Only eight applied for an exemption starting next school year. Neither the Shawnee Mission nor Olathe school districts sought the exemption.
Questions about the law’s constitutionality persist a year after it was passed.
Last summer, Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker sent a six-page letter to Attorney General Derek Schmidt asking whether the law unconstitutionally infringed on the Kansas Board of Education’s authority.
The law gives the governor and top lawmakers a hand in picking the first innovative districts.
Later applications will be reviewed by a special panel made up representatives of the innovative districts.
Schmidt said he couldn’t address the issue because it was entwined with the monumental school finance case pending before the state Supreme Court.
In her letter, DeBacker said the Education Department had fielded many comments and concerns that the innovative districts don’t have to comply with federal and state laws.
“The confusion arises from the ambiguous wording of the act itself, but a careful analysis establishes that innovative districts are subject to most, if not all, education specific statutes,” the letter stated.
DeBacker also said the law could cause complications if school districts waive state testing assessments for an alternative exam.
Waiving mandatory assessments approved by the U.S. Department of Education, she said, could put some federal funding in jeopardy.
Supporters of the law say it holds innovative schools to a higher standard because they must show improvement in the percentage of kids completing a post-secondary education or qualifying for military service.
“It offered districts a way to set higher goals and remove potential impediments to doing that,” said lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards.
At least two other states — Kentucky and Washington — have implemented innovative schools where rules and regulations can be lifted to foster new teaching strategies.
Last summer, a study in Washington questioned their effectiveness. It concluded there was no evidence that test scores in innovative schools were different from other schools. State officials challenged that analysis, saying test scores alone couldn’t measure the value of innovations.
Kelley, the Kansas lawmaker who champions the change, said the freed-up schools need time to prove their value.
“What innovative districts do show is that different isn’t necessarily bad,” she said. “Different can be good. Different can be an improvement.”
In Blue Valley schools, administrators want the teacher licensing requirement lifted so they can more easily hire for “real-world” programs that teach subjects such as law, sports medicine and global business.
Superintendent Tom Trigg said the district wants flexibility to hire specialized instructors, but the licensing requirement sometimes stands in the way.
“We’re going to hire the very best people possible for teaching positions,” Trigg said.
The Kansas City, Kan., school district hopes waiving the teacher certification requirement would allow placement of students in a business climate with experts in different fields, said David A. Smith, district chief of staff.
The district also wants permission to pay tuition for students simultaneously enrolled in high school and college courses to help less-affluent students whose families can’t afford the fees.
“Using district funds to pay for college tuition is important to preparing our students for college,” Smith said in an email.
In the rural Santa Fe Trail district in Douglas County, students might be able to forgo some math, science or English classes in favor of technical education courses, including on-the-job experience off campus.
Superintendent Steve Pegram said existing graduation requirements discourage kids from taking vocational classes that are treated as electives. As a result, he said, they wait until after high school to get vocational training.
The district hopes students will develop their reading, math and science skills through “experiential learning” in the classroom or the workplace.
“We’re not trying to get them out of anything, per se,” Pegram said. “There is applied math. There is applied science. There is heavy technical reading. We see all that in (vocational training) already.”
To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to email@example.com.