Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Innovative Districts Receive First Three Waivers ; State Board OKs Plan to Let Schools Pay College Tuition for Dual- Enrollment Courses

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Innovative Districts Receive First Three Waivers ; State Board OKs Plan to Let Schools Pay College Tuition for Dual- Enrollment Courses

Article excerpt

The Kansas State Board of Education this month waived three state laws and regulations for three school districts -- the first time it has done so under a 2013 law that proponents hope will spur innovation but that faces opposition from the state's main teachers union.

Concordia Unified School District 333, Hugoton USD 210 and Kansas City USD 500 will be allowed to pay college tuition for high- schoolers taking dual-enrollment classes.

Concordia also will be able to focus on an accreditation model different from that used by the state and to grant students physical education credits for athletic activities pursued outside of school.

The changes currently are restricted to these districts as part of an Innovative Districts program created by the Legislature.

"This is all about, 'Let's see how it works and what happens,' " said Jim McNiece, a member of the state board of education and of Kansas' new board of Innovative Districts.

Kansas has five Innovative Districts, out of 286 school districts statewide. After the Legislature created the program in 2013, the governor and legislative leadership selected two districts to kick it off, Concordia and McPherson USD 418.

Three more joined in October -- Kansas City, Hugoton and Blue Valley USD 229 -- and last week, the Innovative Districts board accepted a sixth applicant, Marysville USD 364, pending approval from the state board of education.

McNiece and others who support the program argue that loosening state requirements for some districts may help identify any regulatory obstacles hindering schools from better serving their students.

"This isn't a wholesale change to the way we do business," said McNiece, a former high school principal from Wichita, describing the program as more like an "incubator" to test ideas that could, if successful, ultimately benefit schools statewide.

The state's main teacher's union, however, remains skeptical because of the 2013 legislation's links to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a free-market organization of corporate lobbyists and legislators.

"The whole innovative thing on the front end sounds real good," said Marcus Baltzell, communications director for the Kansas National Education Association, "but the devil's in the details."

KNEA officials are concerned the program could allow school districts to circumvent teachers' rights, contract negotiations or state standards that are intended to promote quality schools and ensure districts hire professional teachers with pedagogical training.

"That's a concern that we have," Baltzell said, "Erosion of standards."

Concordia superintendent Bev Mortimer said the first wave of regulatory exemptions approved this month will allow her district to offer physics through a local community college.

"It is more efficient," she said, to let the district's five physics students go to Cloud County Community College for the course. …

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