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How Educators Took Back An Education Reform Plan From Politicians In Kansas

Sam Zeff

When they’re not talking about how to fund education in the Kansas Statehouse, they’re talking about how to change it. How to improve it. How to get better results with the same money.

Six school districts across the state are now rolling out something that may do all of that.

The school districts in Concordia, Marysville, McPherson, Blue Valley, Hugoton and Kansas City, Kan., are all part of something called the Coalition of Innovative School Districts and they all want, among other things, to license teachers differently. In a way, they say, that works best for them.

"We kind of think of ourselves as a think tank. And we’ll try out some things and if they’re good, how do we scale that for everyone else," says McPherson Superintendent Randy Watson who becomes Kansas Education Commissioner in July.

The Innovative District law essentially lets any district whose plan is approved to opt out of almost any state public education law or regulation. There are certain financial regulations which they must follow and the law does not let them opt out of federal regulations.

The roots of these innovative districts are deep in conservative education doctrine and the idea was championed by some of the most conservative members of the Kansas Legislature.

The Innovative School District idea sprung out of model legislation two years ago from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers.

And most educators and some lawmakers absolutely believed this was an attempt to undermine teacher collective bargaining in Kansas.

"We were worried that school districts might be more interested in getting out of collective bargaining agreements or due process provisions or something than actually doing something different," says Mark Desetti who directs legislative and political affairs for the Kansas National Education Association (K-NEA), which represents most teachers in the state.

But as the process moved along something happened. Educators took over the process from politicians and, says Desetti, innovative districts are today a little less scary.

"At least so far we haven’t seen the kind of abuses that were possible under this legislation and I would hope that it would continue that way," he says.

Soon-to-be education commissioner Randy Watson says it took a lot of meetings and some political skill to get there, but the Coalition of Innovative Districts seems to be on the right track.

"We had to say no, you just watch, this is really crafted about student success. And watch what we do and judge us on that not what you think is going to happen because of the political nature of this," he says.

The K-NEA was also worried about licensing teachers in alternative ways.

But Kansas City, Kan., has been doing that for some time through a federal program called Project Lead the Way.

Andrew Turner, who has been teaching robotics and engineering at Schlagle High School for eight years, took an unusual path to the classroom.

"I was a professional actor for a while. Then I ran a recycling company. I worked with adults with developmental disabilities. I worked for UPS. I raised my kids. A bunch of different stuff," he says.

All six districts want to waive licensure requirements so they can more easily hire specialty teachers.

Blue Valley wants engineering teachers. Hugoton needs welding and mechanics instructors.

And, says KCK Chief of Staff David Smith, his districts wants more teachers who bring real world experience to the classroom, like Andrew Turner.

"We’re not going to be successful if we always continue to do things the way we’ve always done them. Some of that means doing our work differently in terms of how we teach, who teaches, where that teaching happens, what is being taught, all of those things," he says.

KCK also wants to be able to pay for one year of community college for its students. Three of the districts want to opt out of new state assessment tests and use something else. None of it is cutting edge innovation but, these districts say in their applications, these changes will help better education their students.

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