On Monday, April 22, Governor Sam Brownback signed HB 2319, the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act, which will allow up to ten percent of the state’s school districts (currently 28) to opt out of most state laws and rules and regulations in exchange for setting higher student achievement goals. After the first two districts are approved by state officials, it creates a Board of Innovative Districts to approve additional districts, up to the maximum number allowed.
Background and legislative history
The bill has become very controversial within the public education community, as well as the Legislature. It was drafted at the request of Senate Education Committee Chair Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City. Sen. Abrams, a former member and chair of the Kansas State Board of Education, sought input from education leaders, including KASB.
KASB supported the bill because it included several key aspects of KASB’s First in Education plan. First, it requires innovative districts focus on improving college and career readiness, measured by student completion rates for college, technical programs and the military. Second, it gives school boards more flexibility to pursue higher achievement by allowing them to opt out of most state operating mandates, both laws and regulations, if they so choose. Third, it is focused on innovation and deregulation within the public school system, under the authority of elected local school boards, rather than outside the system through vouchers, tax credits or charter schools not accountable to voters or performance standards.
Testifying in support of the bill along with KASB in hearings before the House and Senate Education Committees were the McPherson and Kansas City school districts, which have received waivers from the Kansas State Board of Education and U.S. Department of Education allowing them to use more college- and career-focused tests instead of state assessments. Also supporting it was the Kansas Policy Institute, which is often critical of public school performance in Kansas and supports public funding for a wider range of educational options for students, such as private schools and independent charter schools.
However, the Kansas National Education Association strongly opposed the bill, in part because it would allow boards of innovative districts to operate exempt from state laws governing relations with teachers, such as professional negotiations, tenure or due process, and licensure.
The United School Administrators of Kansas testified as neutral on the bill, and the Kansas Parent Teachers Association was neutral before the House committee and opposed the bill in the Senate committee. Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker provided informational testimony in the House Committee. No members of the State Board testified in either committee. Subsequently, some members of the State Board have expressed opposition to the bill to KASB.
The House passed the final version of the bill 71-47. The Senate passed the bill 29-11. In the House, an amendment to require innovative districts to follow state laws on teacher negotiations, due process and licensure, was defeated on a vote of 50-70.
Opponents of the bill, including all legislative Democrats and many moderate Republicans, generally focused on the possible exemptions for teacher laws, especially the ability to hire unlicensed teachers; and warned that student outcomes would decline in such districts as a result. A Democratic leader, Rep. Jim Ward, R-Wichita, tweeted this week “HB 2319 is not education reform nor is it innovative, it creates no accountability school districts. Bad policy.”
KASB advance the following points in support of the bill.
· Innovative districts will continue to follow state laws and regulations until and unless the local board of education, accountable to local voters, parents, staff and community interests, decides otherwise.
· The exemption authority provided to innovative districts will be a maximum of five years unless renewed. If the district does not demonstrate improvement – if the district plan doesn't work – it will lose the exemption authority. If the district fails to meet improvement targets for two consecutive years, the district can lose its innovative status.
· If a district decides it would be helpful to operate outside of traditional laws and regulations to achieve higher educational outcomes, it will have to demonstrate its decision was successful, or lose that ability at the end of the five year authorization.
· If districts are able to demonstrate success while operating without certain state requirements, the state will be able to evaluate the desirability of continuing such requirements and regulations.
· If districts are able to demonstrate higher achievement without using exemptions, or if districts with such exemptions fail to perform at a higher level, it will provide evidence state requirements are not significant impediments; or are in fact helpful in promoting student achievement.
Here are the detailed provisions of the bill from legislative staff, with some additional comments from KASB.
Establishment of Public Innovative Districts (Sections 3 and 5)
The act creates a process whereby a local board of education could apply for authority to operate as a “public innovative district.” The bill would limit the number of public innovative districts to no more than ten percent of the state’s school districts at any time. The application and approval requirements would differ as follows:
First two school districts. A request for approval will go first to the Governor and the chairpersons of the Senate and House education committees. If a majority of these individuals approves the request, the district may submit an application to the State Board of Education (State Board), which will be required to review and approve the application within 90 days, if it includes the required contents (see below). Requirements regarding notification of both approval and denial are contained in the bill. If an application is denied, the district will have an opportunity to submit an amended application.
Remaining districts. The request for approval will go first to the Coalition Board (see below), which is made up of representatives of the approved innovative districts. The Coalition Board will have sole discretion to approve or deny the request and may make recommendations to the requesting school district to modify the request. Modifications could then be considered by the Coalition Board prior to making a final decision. If the request is approved, the district may submit the application to the State Board. The same review and notification requirements apply.
KASB comments: The act is designed to create a process of “peer review” for districts to operate under this authority. After the first two districts are chosen by the Governor and committee chairs, the approved districts are charged with evaluating the proposed programs and goals of innovative districts. In other words, the first two districts must approve the third, the first three must approve the fourth, etc., until all authorized slots are filled.
Application requirements. The application must contain a description of the educational programs of the public innovative district, a description of parental and community interest and support, the specific goals and measurable pupil outcomes to be obtained, and an explanation of how pupil performance in achieving the specified outcomes will be measured, evaluated, and reported.
KASB comments: One of the key aspects of the act is the district's “completion percentage,” which is defined as “the percentage of high school graduates of a public innovative district that have enlisted in military service or completed a postsecondary educational certificate program or degree program as determined by the national student clearinghouse, or other postsecondary educational program completion database utilized by such public innovative district.” Increasing the district completion percentage is one of the factors in renewal of authority to operate as an innovative district.
Requirements and Exemptions for Public Innovative Districts (Section 3)
Requirements. In addition to complying with its own stated goals, a public innovative district will be required to:
· Participate in all applicable Kansas math and reading assessments or an alternative assessment determined by the local board of education;
· Abide by all financial and auditing requirements applicable to school districts, except a public innovative district would be permitted to use generally accepted accounting principles;
· Comply with all applicable health, safety and access laws; and
· Be subject to the Special Education for Exceptional Children Act, the Virtual School Act, the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act, capital outlay requirements (KSA 72-8801 et seq.), all laws governing the issuance of general obligation bonds by districts, laws governing public employee retirement (KSA 74-4901 et seq.), laws governing school board elections, the Kansas Open Records Act, and the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
A public innovative district could not charge tuition for any pupils residing in the district’s boundaries.
Exemptions. Unless otherwise required by the Act or decided by the board of education of the public innovative district, public innovative districts will be exempt from all laws and rules and regulations applicable to school districts.
KASB comments: Te act essentially requires districts to follow state finance laws and requirements, open meetings and records acts, and student assessments. Otherwise, districts appear to be exempt from most other state requirements.
Although innovative are exempt from these laws without having to go through any other process, the local board may continue to follow any or all of these laws if it wishes. For example, the districts would not be required to operate for the statutory minimum school terms, but the board could continue to do so.
Coalition of Innovative Districts; Coalition Board (Section 4, unless otherwise noted)
The act establishes the Coalition of Innovative Districts, with duties and functions to be carried out by a Coalition Board. The Coalition Board will consist of one representative of each public innovative district as designated by the board of education of the district.
Chairperson. The chairperson of the Coalition Board will be appointed in a unanimous decision by the Governor and the chairpersons of the House and Senate Education Committees. The Coalition Board chairperson serves a five-year term, with any vacancy filled in the same method as a regular appointment.
Duties. The Coalition Board will carry out the duties and functions of the coalition, including the following:
· The Coalition Board will conduct the initial review of all but the first two prospective public innovative districts, and have the sole discretion to approve or deny a district’s request to become a public innovative district. (If the Coalition Board approves the request, the district’s petition to become a public innovative district may proceed to the State Board.)
· As part of the initial review, the Coalition Board may make recommendations to modify the request and may subsequently consider the modifications prior to making a final decision. (Section 5)
· If a public innovative district fails to meet any of the specified renewal criteria (see “Performance- Related Provisions,” below), the Coalition Board may petition the State Board to request the public innovative district’s authority be revoked. (Section 7)
Reports. 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.
Meetings. The Coalition Board may meet as often as, and wherever, deemed appropriate, and may form subcommittees.
Operational Time Limit; Performance-Related Provisions; Petition for Revocation of Authority (Sections 6-8)
Authority and renewal. A public innovative district will be granted authority to operate as such for a period of five school years. At least 90 days prior to expiration of this period, a public innovative district may submit an application to renew its authority to the State Board, and if the application is complete, the State Board is required to approve the application within 60 days of submission, with related notification deadlines. The renewal application must contain:
· Evidence the public innovative district has met the standards on the designated math and reading state or alternative assessments during the five-year period;
· Evidence the public innovative district has shown improvement in its completion percentage (see above) during the same period;
· Demonstrated progress the public innovative district is achieving the goals and outcomes described in its application; and
· A description of compliance with the requirements of the act.
Early revocation of authority. However, if a public innovative district fails to meet any of the renewal criteria for two or more consecutive years, either the public innovative district itself may petition the State Board for a release from its public innovative district status, or the Coalition Board may submit a petition to the State Board requesting the public innovative district’s authority to operate as such be revoked.
· The State Board must honor any such petition request originating from the public innovative district itself, and release from the authority to operate under the act will be effective for the school year immediately following the grant of the petition.
· In the case of a Coalition Board-initiated petition, the public innovative district will be provided the opportunity to have a hearing on the matter. A time frame for the hearing request and subsequent decision is provided. If the petition is granted, the authority to operate as a public innovative district will be revoked beginning with the school year immediately following the grant of the petition.
Monthly meetings. The act requires the superintendents of the public innovative districts to meet at least monthly to discuss the success or failure of educational programs.
Additional Duties of the State Board (Sections 9 and 10)
The bill requires the State Board to provide technical advice and assistance in preparing an application for authority to operate as a public innovative district, upon the request of a prospective school district. Additionally, the State Board is to adopt rules and regulations as deemed necessary to implement the act.