Innovative School Districts – falling short of expectations

David DorseyEducation

In April of 2013, Governor Brownback signed into law the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act. When originally passed, the law allowed up to ten percent of the state’s school districts (29) to become an innovative district, the purpose of which is to allow them to “opt out of most state laws and rules and regulations in order to improve student achievement.” In 2014, the law was amended to double the number of eligible districts, targeting those with priority and focus schools.

Senator Steve Abrams, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and supporter of the law 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.”

However, there was not uniform backing for the law. Then Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker was skeptical.  “We don’t see the need for this bill…we have many schools innovative right now.”DeBacker said. She went on to say that schools currently have the ability to seek waivers of rules and regulations that they think are hindering their efforts.

The new law brought hope to school choice advocates that it would also serve as an alternative to Kansas’s woeful charter school law, considered the worst in the nation.

It hasn’t happened.

Only six districts of the seven that have applied have been granted innovative status: Blue Valley (USD 229), Concordia (USD 333), Hugoton (USD 210), Kansas City (USD 500), Marysville (USD 364), and McPherson (USD 418).  Santa Fe Trail (USD 434) was rejected and has not reapplied.

The six districts are part of a mandated coalition, aptly named the Coalition of Innovative School Districts (CISD). The group essential operates in the shadows, with virtually no information disseminated to the public.

Now three years into the program, many issues and questions need be addressed, especially since districts must have their innovative status renewed every five years by the State Board of Education.

  • Why are so few schools interested in participating?
  • What could be done differently to get more districts interested?
  • What exactly are the innovative districts doing that is truly innovative?
  • How are they monitoring/measuring success?
  • What are the reactions from key legislators who pushed for the law?
  • Will the State Board of Education effectively gut the program by not granting extensions past the initial five-year period?
  • Is the innovative school concept a serious school choice option?

Clearly, the innovative schools idea has received a cool reception across the state. But, as Kansas continues to grapple with what education should look like in the 21st century, it is hopeful more districts will see this as a way to provide better opportunities for students to succeed, especially in districts with failing schools. There is an important story to be uncovered and told; one of the legislative process, hopes unrealized, and an education bureaucracy loath to change.

This is the first of a series of blogs on innovative school districts in Kansas.

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