A bill supported by KASB to allow creation of “innovative districts” was signed into law this past month. The law, in its final form, allows up to 10 percent (equating to 28) of districts to participate. KASB’s support was based on our foundational principle that problems are best solved at the local level by locally elected officials.
The bill created many questions and even consternation in the education community during its formation. Some continue to view it as a way to circumvent accountability. Actually, the Innovative District Law requires a higher standard of accountability for student learning than currently exists. Districts should only consider applying if they want to be held to a higher standard.
Let’s consider possible benefits of an innovative district’s law. First, there are legislators and state officials who believe charter schools will improve education because charters allow more innovation. The law allows Kansas districts the same opportunities to “innovate” as charter schools in other states, but within the support of our democratic system of governance. This is our chance to show that innovation isn’t just the purview of those working outside the system. To paraphrase the bandits in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” this is our chance to show ‘we don’t need no stinking charters.’
Does this mean a district should just decide ‘we want to be innovative, let’s apply?’ In my opinion, that would be the wrong approach. Rather, a board and community should design a process to discuss and reach consensus on what they want for their children. Innovation for innovation’s sake is a waste of time and resources. Specifically-defined visions for kids that result in innovative programs are where we should focus.
After the community reaches consensus on what is needed for students, the next step would be to identify barriers and obstacles to reaching that vision. The innovative districtss law gives the community and board a broader perspective in identifying those barriers and obstacles. Are there state laws that get in the way of what we want for our children? Are there rules and regulations that are an obstacle? If there are, a local board’s first step would be to see if those rules and regulations could be waived. If not, the next step would be to apply for innovative district status.
It is possible the community and district will not identify any laws or regulations that are obstacles or barriers. If so, we will learn it isn’t state laws or regulations that keep us from meeting the needs of our students. If laws or regulations are identified as obstacles, we will see if success can be achieved once they are removed. That gives us data on what changes might be good for all districts.
Three years ago KASB sponsored a series of discussions around the state to talk about barriers to improving Kansas schools. One of the frequently mentioned answers was “too many rules and regulations.” The innovative districts law is an opportunity to help us learn if that perception is correct, or if it is just an excuse we use when we don’t want to change.
The Kansas State Board of Education has long been a good partner for local districts. The innovative districts law should not be viewed as an attack on the State Board. It is a way for local districts to look for different ways to achieve the goals of higher achievement - a goal the State Board has long championed. I believe the innovative districts law is a chance to strengthen the relationship between local districts and the State Board by allowing districts to take a critical look at all requirements and analyze how they affect student learning. This can be vital feedback from the field to the state board.
I know from experience that school boards are often frustrated by requirements placed upon them by legislators. The innovative districts law allows the local district a chance to opt out of those statutes they find frustrating. This will give educators and local boards an opportunity to show that some of these requirements may not be necessary.
At the end of five years, we may learn that there was no need for an innovative districts law. We will have learned that lesson in an environment that was controlled by a locally elected board of education, not just left to the no rules and no holds barred world of charters and vouchers. We may discover a whole new world of learning opportunities for students brought to light by the opportunity to work outside of typical restraints.
That reward would be worth the risk.
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