Innovative School Districts – good intentions, potential gone unrealized

David DorseyEducation

In this previous blog an overview of the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act was presented with the conclusion that the opportunities provided by the act have gone largely unnoticed and unrealized. This installment on the innovative schools will show that the six member districts are little more than a club with scarcely any innovation to show for their activities.

As a quick reminder, the law allows up to 20% (with restrictions) of Kansas school districts to be granted innovative status. This status permits member districts to opt out of most state regulations for the purpose of improving student achievement. Only six districts 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) is the only district to apply and be rejected.

The districts operate under an umbrella called the Coalition of Innovative School Districts (CISD). They provide public information of their goings-on several ways:

  • CISD maintains a website that has a framework for providing pertinent information about all things CISD.
  • CISD produces an annual report to the Legislature, as required by statute.
  • CISD makes a biannual presentation to the State Board of Education.

The website.

A close look at the website indicates how little attention is provided to keeping information up to date. Although CISD posts the Kansas Legislative Research Department’s summary of the original statute, CISD failed to update the revision to the law that allows additional districts to join. The website still has the 10% figure.  They continue to list Dr. Randy Watson as Chairman of the CISD board, although Dr. Watson has been Kansas Education Commissioner for the past year.  In fact, the board has had two chairpersons since Watson’s departure, Bev Mortimer of Concordia and current chairman Bill Mullins of Marysville. Also, they still list Brad Neuenswander as the Kansas Interim Commissioner of Education.

The lack of attention to keeping up-to-date information is pronounced in the monthly meeting agendas and minutes. As of this writing, the CISD has not posted minutes from their monthly meetings since December 2015. Furthermore, some of what are supposed to be meeting minutes are just the agendas, so there is no public record of what transpired during those meetings.

Annual report to the Legislature.

HB 2319, the authorizing legislation that created the innovative districts, has a provision for reporting to the Legislature. According to the CISD website:

The Coalition Board must report annually to the Legislature regarding pupil performance in the public innovative districts, the laws and rules and regulations deemed problematic by the Coalition Board, and any other information regarding success or problems experienced by the public innovative districts during the previous year.

The 2015 report that was given to the Legislature was understandably little more than a starting point for the innovative initiative. However, the 2016 report is much more telling of where the innovative districts are. While the 2015 report was presented by Dr. Watson to the House Education Committee in March of 2015, no such presentation was done during the 2016 legislative session. That report was sent to committee members in an email, with an apology from then Chairperson Bev Mortimer for not being able to “to make arrangements for the Coalition of Innovative School Districts to present in person to the House and Senate Education Committees this Legislative Session.” The report, which was dated March 31, 2016 but not emailed until May 24, 2016, has basically two takeaways:

  • There is virtually no data on pupil performance as directed by statute.
  • The districts didn’t need to have innovative status to claim their activities as “innovative.” The report is full of examples like this one from Kansas City (USD 500) in which they reported this as an accomplishment: “Re-ignited Teaching Fellows in collaboration with Pittsburg State University.This is something they clearly could have done sans innovative status.

State Board Presentations.

CISD gives two updates to the State Board of Education each year. The most recent was in April 2016.  The presentation, which can be seen in archived State Board video here. (It starts at the one hour fifty minute mark). CISD provided the State Board essentially the same information that is in the annual report to the Legislature.

The response to that presentation by State Board Member Sally Cauble puts a ribbon on the idea that not much is happening pursuant to the law. She said she “couldn’t see why they couldn’t do what they’re doing within our realm,” and went on to say how happy she was to see districts sharing programs with each other that wouldn’t otherwise have gotten done.

That pretty much sums of the state of the innovative school initiative: schools are not doing anything they couldn’t already be doing but at least the districts seem to be doing some networking that they had not previously.

That’s a far cry from the intent of the law, which was established to exempt districts from most state requirements in order to improve student outcomes.

The third and final article in this series will focus on what happened when the districts tried to pursue something that would actually be innovative.

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