Kansas ‘Innovative Districts’ Law Faces Questions

Senior Editor

Kansas lawmakers approved a measure this year to support what seems like an unobjectionable goal: producing innovation in schools.

But is that measure legal?

Officials at the Kansas state department of education have doubts, which they’ve spelled out in a letter to state Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

A number of states have taken steps to grant districts freedom from various education rules and regulations, with the idea of improving student performance or producing other results, such as driving down costs. Department officials in Kansas argue that the House Bill 2319, which cleared the legislature and was signed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, earlier this year, goes too far and violates the state’s constitution by usurping the authority of both the Kansas state board of education and local districts.

The law allows school systems in Kansas to apply for designation as “public innovative districts,” giving them the right to opt out of most state rules and regulations applicable to K-12, as part of efforts to improve student achievement, according to the language of the measure. Up to 10 percent of the state’s districts could have that status at any one time.

The law would establish a board to oversee school systems seeking to join the innovative-district camp. Districts could receive that designation for periods of up to five years, and their application could be renewed only if they meet a variety of standards for academic performance and improvement, achieve the promises of their original applications, and otherwise comply with the law.

In their letter, Kansas department of education officials point out that the law requires them to develop an application for districts seeking to apply for innovative status, and provide technical assistance to local school boards. But they also cite four ways in which they believe the law could runs afoul of the state’s constitution, such as by allowing the coalition board to choose which federal and state laws districts must follow.

“The legal effect of the act will be to supplant the role of the [state board] and erode the concept of local control by locally elected school boards,” the department argued to the AG. The department believes that “disagreement and confusions exists regarding [the board’s] authority over innovative districts and whether innovative districts must comply with state laws.”

The department asks Schmidt to examine the law and “find that it does not pass constitutional muster because it improperly infringes on the authority of the [state board] and its role in the general supervision of education in the state of Kansas.”

The office of Schmidt, a Republican elected in 2010, has not yet responded to a request for comment.

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