TOPEKA, Kansas — Concordia and McPherson school districts were granted innovative status Wednesday, freeing the two rural Kansas districts from state laws as they pursue certain education goals.
The districts were chosen from eight initial applicants to be part of the Kansas Coalition of Innovative School Districts, which was established under a law enacted in 2013.
Each district submitted applications and made presentations to Gov. Sam Brownback, House Education Committee Chairwoman Kasha Kelley and Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Abrams. The three unanimously approved the first two districts, citing their goals and focus on improving achievement.
"I'm most hopeful that as the (superintendents) move forward that it will lead to thoughts that will lead to more individual learning plans," said Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican.
By granting innovative status, districts would be exempt from state rules and regulations in exchange for the freedom to develop strategies to boost student achievement. The districts would operate similar to charter schools but still be accountable to local boards of education and the State Board of Education. The law allows for up to 29 of the state's 286 school districts to be designated as innovative.
Abrams, Brownback and Kelley encouraged the innovative districts to share ideas with each other and not be afraid to fail as they try new strategies.
"I firmly believe that this is a new day in education," said Kelley, also an Arkansas City Republican.
McPherson superintendent Randy Watson will serve as chairman of the board, which will review the other applications for possible inclusion as innovative districts. Watson said the goal of his district's proposal was to give students not only the job or education they needed but life skills such as character, service to others and involvement in activities.
Many of those presenting to the trio said that they would seek to increase the number of students who had completed up to a year of college credit or industry certification when they graduate high school.
Concordia, for example, will use the flexibility to place high school students in career and technical education situations where they can learn the skills to enter the workforce immediately after graduation, such as the growing wind energy sector.
Beverly Mortimer, superintendent of schools, said another piece would allow students to earn graduation credit for participation in extracurricular activities such as sports or academic competitions that would free them to take advanced courses in math or science.
The innovative schools law has not been without its critics, including the Kansas National Education Association, which has raised concerns about districts that may seek to waive state teacher licensing and employment laws. Several of the innovative district applicants mentioned the need for relaxing licensure laws to attract teachers in rural areas, especially for growing demand for career and technical courses.
The Kansas Department of Education has asked the attorney general's office to issue guidance regarding what laws and regulations districts could be exempt from under the innovative designation.