State education board may seek attorney general’s opinion on ‘innovative districts’ law
The Kansas State Board of Education may consider challenging a new law that would allow as many as 29 school districts to exempt themselves from a multitude of state laws and regulations.
Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said the board may vote to seek an attorney general's opinion clarifying parts of the law, or it may consider ways to challenge the law in court.
DeBacker is scheduled to give an update on details of the new law when the state board meets Tuesday in Topeka.
"We may ask for somebody outside all of us to give us an opinion about who can waive (rules) and say yes or no," DeBacker said.
House Bill 2319, known as the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act, was signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback April 22. It sets up a process for districts to become a "public innovative district" and thereby opt out of most state laws and regulations for five years at a time in order to improve student achievement.
Those districts would still have to give annual reading and math assessments, as well as comply with health and safety laws, special education requirements and state school finance laws.
The first two innovative districts would have to be approved by the governor and the chairpersons of the House and Senate education committees. After that, applications would go through a board made up of representatives from each innovative district, and that board would have sole discretion to approve or deny future applications.
"There are so many conflicting things, at least with the people I've been speaking to, as to who can do what," DeBacker said. "For example, there's a district that might apply in order to reduce the 1,116 student contact hours. Their reason is that they need more time to do staff development.
The requirement for a certain number of "contact hours" in a school year is set out in Kansas statutes, Debacker said.
"So who has the authority to waive that?" Debacker asked. "There are some who think the coalition board that they established is given the right to do that. I don't read it that way at all."
Some observers have said the law itself may conflict with Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which gives the state board the power for "general supervision of public schools, educational institutions and all the educational interests of the state," except for functions delegated to the Kansas Board of Regents, which supervises higher education.
DeBacker said that issue may come up from board members, but she said it's unclear what direction the board might take.
"Would they direct their board attorney to file suit?" she asked. "And do you file suit before anything even happens? I don't know where the conversation will take us."
Lawrence school district officials have already said they are not considering taking part in the innovative districts program.
The board will also get an update from Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis about the school finance budget for next year and other legislation pending at the Kansas Statehouse as lawmakers try to wind down their 2013 session.
Also during Tuesday's meeting, the state board will hear what may be its final briefing about the proposed Next Generation Science Standards before it is asked to vote on adopting them in Kansas.
Kansas was among the 26 lead states that helped develop the standards. But the state board still has to vote on whether to adopt them in Kansas.
DeBacker said that vote could come as early as next month.
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