LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Top Kentucky education officials on Friday previewed an application process for school districts to operate more like charter schools, freed from a host of laws and regulations to run more independently. The goal is to turn public schools into testing grounds for new approaches that better prepare students for college and careers.
Participating local districts would gain more flexibility on such core issues as curriculum, instruction, funding and school scheduling. In return, districts would offer commitments to improve student performance, especially among low-achieving students.
State officials are still finalizing rules for the initiative. As a result, districts won't start getting the designations to operate more like charters until the 2013-14 school year.
Speaking at a conference attended by many local school officials, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said the goal is to get away from "business as usual" by promoting classroom innovations that go beyond what existing laws and regulations allow.
"We want you outside of the box," he said. "We want you to not even think about the box."
State education officials hope that advances made by the participating districts will spread statewide.
The initiative stems from legislation passed by the 2012 General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear.
It taps into the growing popularity of charter schools nationwide.
Kentucky has no charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate independently of many of the laws and regulations governing traditional public schools.
More than 2 million students nationwide now attend charters, a big surge in the last decade, and the Obama administration has encouraged their expansion through initiatives like Race to the Top, the multi-billion-dollar grant competition.
In Kentucky, districts wanting to be more charter-like would apply to the Kentucky Department of Education to gain designation as a "District of Innovation."
If approved, the status would apply to whichever schools are part of the district's proposal. It could be every school in a district or just one or two.
Teachers would have a voice in the application. Before a school is added to an application, at least 70 percent of its teachers have to give their approval.
Districts also would have to demonstrate how they reward risk-taking in education and how being more charter-like would improve student performance.
The Kentucky Board of Education would make the final selections. The designations would last at least five years, but state education officials would monitor each participating district's progress. Those districts would make periodic reports to the state.
Participating districts would still have to comply with laws and regulations on health, safety, civil rights and disability rights. They would also be bound to requirements dealing with such matters as compulsory attendance, core academic standards, minimum high school graduation standards and compliance with open records and meetings.
Those districts would gain considerable new leeway in running their schools. David Cook, director of innovation in the state Department of Education, estimated the number of initial districts participate might be in the range of five to 10.
"We want schools of innovation not to look like anything we've ever seen before, at least in public schools in Kentucky," Cook said.
For instance, districts could be more innovative in making assignments for teachers to let them become more specialized. Or, districts could create two shifts at participating schools. The district wouldn't change the total amount of time teachers or students spend in school, but the schedules wouldn't be the same for everyone.
Crittenden County schools Superintendent Rachel Yarbrough said afterward that the initiative will move Kentucky education "in the right direction," and will prompt greater self-analysis among districts about whether they are preparing students for an ever-changing work place.
"Sometimes public education has remained too static, and has not been an institution that's ready for some dynamic shifts in how it looks and how it sounds and how it functions," she said. The initiative "moves us more toward, are we a dynamic school district. Can we adjust, can we offer a different platform for kids to learn."
The results could be far reaching.
If participating districts use their newfound freedom from certain regulations or laws to better prepare students for college and the work force, education officials could ask state lawmakers to relax or repeal those restrictions statewide, Cook said.
"Ideally if this 'district of innovation' process works well, in a few years we won't need it," he said.