‘Districts of Innovation’ Could Be Kentucky’s Charter-lite

While Kentucky's "Districts of Innovation" program doesn't go as far as introducing real school choice to the state, some consider it a promising first step. Created by the state's General Assembly last year, the plan will identify 10 or more of the state's public schools and give them the freedom to experiment with new approaches to education without being forced to meet the raft of rules that typically govern the way schools approach the business of teaching.

David Cook, whose unusual Director of Innovation title at the Kentucky Department of Education identifies him as not-your-average-administrator, says that the program is basically attempting to make public schools look and function more like charter schools. While the schools selected to participate will still have to be accountable to the state for the academic outcomes of their student, they will also be allowed to innovate without government looking over their shoulders too much.

State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said he wants schools and districts to fundamentally rethink what school looks like, and he warned district leaders Friday to "not bother to apply at all if all you want to do is move the chairs on the Titanic."

"We've not quite cracked the nut" of learning how to raise achievement for all schools and students, he said. "And we're really looking for something creative to help these kids."

House Bill 37, which laid out the program's details, was in part inspired from charter legislation on the books in other states. Yet those who wish to make school choice a reality in the state – something that advocates have been fighting for and failing to do for years – say that an "almost-charter" school is still not a true, independently operating charter school. Richard Innes of the Bluegrass Institute policy center concedes that it is a step in the right direction, but a step that doesn't go nearly far enough.

The districts will have an opportunity to apply to become "innovation schools" in the next few months, with the first batch estimated to begin operating in the fall of 2013. The goals set out for the new schools are ambitious. Before they can even apply, they must obtain the approval of 70% of the faculty and get permission from the local school council. Once the permission to innovate is granted, they will still have to meet certain state-mandated goals regarding graduation rates and academic standards, and their success at closing achievement gaps will also be closely scrutinized. Other than that, they will be free to operate as they see fit.

Districts must apply on behalf of schools and include plans, budgets and measurable academic goals. Each school would be monitored by state officials, who could revoke the status.

Gary Houchens, an education professor at Western Kentucky University, said it won't necessarily provide the same parental choice or market pressure to succeed that charters have, but he said that "schools suffer under a lot of burdensome regulations. Any relief we can give teachers is a good idea.

Innes believes that freedom to allow the schools to alter their labor agreements will disqualify most lower-performing schools from the program due to lack of faculty support. Yet, at least one union affiliate thinks differently.

But Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, which supported the legislation, said nearly 100 schools this year have modified labor agreements, and he believes teachers will support successful strategies.

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