One interesting piece of legislation that successfully passed the Kentucky General Asssembly's recently-concluded session was House Bill 37. Sponsored by House education committee chair Carl Rollins (D-Midway), HB 37 allows individual schools and entire districts to apply for "school or district of innovation" status. Such schools would theoretically be free of many burdensome regulations and have more autonomy to innovate creative approaches to curriculum, instruction, and the structure of the school day.
Mr. Rollins believes HB 37 provides a useful alternative to public charter schools, which he has long opposed. But while the districts of innovation law may have merits, it most certainly does not counter the argument or need for more school choice in Kentucky.
The Kentucky Department of Education must still issue administrative regulations that will govern how HB 37 is implemented. How KDE handles this task will greatly influence whether districts of innovation have as much autonomy as supporters of the law have suggested.
HB 37 gives KDE broad leeway in determining the specific areas of regulation from which schools and districts of innovation will be exempt, with only a couple of important exceptions. The law states that such schools may be approved to use capital outlay funds for operational costs (currently a forbidden practice), to implement a flexible school calendar, and to utilize more virtual learning opportunities for the delivery of required high school course credits, among other provisions.
Of most interest to me, the law also states that approved districts of innovation may be able to "employ teachers on extended employment contracts or extra duty contracts and compensate them on a salary schedule other than the single-salary schedule."
Changing the way we pay teachers would certainly constitute an innovation, but the wording of this provision makes it sound like this only applies to that portion of a teacher's contract beyond the regular school-year contract. I plan to contact Mr. Rollins' office for clarification on what the legislature intended by this clause.
At any rate, the law requires a vote of 70 percent of the school's employees to adopt a district of innovation plan. It is unlikely that substantial changes in teacher compensation would be approved by the faculty of most schools.
It's difficult to imagine the full range of innovations a school might attempt under the freedom allegedly granted by HB 37 until the associated administrative regulations are issued by KDE. Generally, I am in favor of any proposals that might change the industrial approach to traditional education that is so relatively ineffective at addressing individual student needs.
The most exciting possibilities under HB 37 might take place at the high school level where the tyrrany of seat-time and credits and rigid schedules makes changes in even basic teaching practices extraordinarily difficult. Only time will tell if such sweeping innovations are really possible under this law.
But while HB 37 may hold promise for giving select schools greater flexibility, it completely fails to address the need for charter schools or other mechanisms of school choice.
Under the existing educational regime, which remains thoroughly intact under HB 37, parents who are unsatisfied with their child's school are essentially barred from exercising any such choice unless they have the financial means to send their child to a private school (if such an alternative is even available).
Kentucky needs charter schools, not simply because they have the kind of autonomy and flexibility schools might get under HB 37, but because they provide educational choices for parents who otherwise have none. Choice in itself promotes innovation because schools must work to offer programs and learning environments that appeal to range of learners and meet diverse needs at high levels.
Choice also works because it provides the ultimate form of accountability: schools of choice that fail will be closed down from lack of consumer interest.
No such accountability exists under HB 37, regardless of how innovative schools are allowed to become.