Gary Houchens: Law allows school innovation but does little to offer choice

May 29, 2012 

Gary Houchens is an associate professor of educational administration and leadership at Western Kentucky University.

One interesting piece of legislation that passed this year's Kentucky General Assembly was House Bill 37. Sponsored by House education chair Carl Rollins, D-Midway, it allows individual schools and entire districts to apply for "school or district of innovation" status if 70 percent of the school employees agree.

Such schools would theoretically be free of many regulations and have more autonomy to innovate creative approaches to curriculum, instruction, and the structure of the school day.

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 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, including the use capital outlay funds for operational costs (currently a forbidden practice), implementing a flexible school calendar, and utilizing more virtual learning opportunities for the delivery of required high school course credits, among other provisions.

The most exciting possibilities under HB 37 might take place at the high school level where the tyranny of seat-time, credit requirements 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 — or if the law is even needed to make them.

Schools actually have far greater flexibility in reforming curriculum and instructional practices than many people — including educators — realize.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute is currently writing a book called Cage-Busting Leadership in which he argues that, while regulations and policies do sometimes interfere with innovation, usually it just takes bold leadership and a commitment from teachers to change the way they teach.

The Eminence Independence school district recently made headlines for some creative reforms it plans for next year, including providing free laptops and partnering with Bellarmine University to offer free college courses for high school students. But none of the changes proposed by the district requires "innovation" status. Eminence schools are already free to implement their plans under current law.

Which is not to say that HB 37 is a bad or unnecessary. To the extent that there are some regulations that stand in the way of education innovation, we should thank the state legislature for providing schools some relief.

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.

Charter schools are public schools of choice, meaning that parents choose to send their children to a charter school, or to leave it later on.

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.

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