Published 3/8/2013 in News : EducationTOPEKA (AP) — Kansas lawmakers on Thursday continued debating legislation aimed at creating 10 innovative school districts that would be exempt from many state rules and regulations in exchange for improving student achievement.
The House gave first-round approval to its bill Thursday after debate over exempting the 10 districts from many laws governing teacher contract negotiations and due process. Senators approved a similar version on a 31-7 vote that would expand the pilot project to 10 percent of the 286 school districts.
The districts would be chosen from a pool of applicants and would receive an exemption from numerous state laws for five years, including receiving flexibility over mandatory annual student testing.
Proponents say the bill will give the districts the freedom to make decisions on student programs and organization that will encourage innovative approaches to learning.
House Education Committee Chairwoman Kasha Kelley said she had visited with superintendents who indicated they were supportive of the concept, adding that many rules and regulations "throttle" local efforts to be innovative.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Abrams said school districts for the project selected would form a coalition that would review those rules and make recommendations for their removal or changes that would benefit all Kansas districts.
"Let's find out if that is indeed the case. I'm suggesting that we should not stand in the way and let them try that," said Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican.
Opponents contend Kansas already has a strong public school system. They argue the proposed exemptions from rules and regulations would remove some protections for teachers and make it harder to attract qualified educators.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a former teacher from Winfield, said reinserting the contract and due process requirements wouldn't prevent districts from being innovative, but that a lack of teacher rights and input on working conditions could have a negative impact on education outcomes.
Kelley said there was no dispute that Kansas had "great teachers" and that the bill only sought to remove bureaucracy that stands in the way of them doing their job to their potential. She also said superintendents suggested that teacher contracts, even though exempt from the bill, would remain negotiated as is the current practice.
"Teachers have a very critical role in this innovation process," said Kelley, an Arkansas City Republican.
Trimmer also said districts could be exempt from current rules on the number of school days, academic standards and transportation.
"We're trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist by creating one that could be far worse," said Trimmer, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee is considering a separate bill that would rewrite the state's laws on teacher negotiations, limiting the number of items that could be subject to contract talks between teachers and school boards. Supporters have said that it would give districts more flexibility in operations and lead to a more efficient system, while critics contend the measure is an attack on teachers by eroding their collective bargaining rights. Hearings on that bill are scheduled to continue Friday.
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