Editorial: Encourage innovative school leaders

The Detroit News

Republican lawmakers are reviving common-sense bills that would offer schools some welcome flexibility. The opposition — echoed from last fall — to the bills is indicative of the broader problems facing Michigan education.

The bills, introduced by state Reps. Brad Paquette, R-Berrien Springs, and Kathy Crawford, R-Novi, would authorize innovative school districts and are similar to legislation former House Education chairman Tim Kelly championed last fall. His bills made it out of the House but stalled in the Senate.

Republican lawmakers are reviving common-sense bills that would offer schools some welcome flexibility.

Kelly is out after being term-limited, so it’s good to see his idea survive. Lawmakers envision giving schools additional freedom to put new programs in place, and to prioritize competency-based learning, which focuses on a student’s mastery of a subject versus time spent in the classroom.

Some districts are already implementing this style of learning, but they must get annual waivers from the state Education Department — and all the paperwork can be discouraging.

The legislation would allow districts that wish to become “innovative districts” the ability to extend their school year and frees them from having to adhere to the current post-Labor Day start. It would also allow schools that are granted permission to do more without needing waivers, including avoiding the strict provision of providing 1,094 hours of instruction over 180 days.

These bills do not mandate anything. Rather, they simply would allow interested districts to apply to the state superintendent. Schools must then meet a series of requirements, and would be monitored to ensure they are delivering results.

So that’s why some of the pushback to the bills is odd, especially coming from groups that represent school administrators as well as education reform organizations.

What the state is doing now isn’t working. Why not try something new?

Many school leaders around the state have asked lawmakers over the years for this kind of flexibility and relief from restrictive rules.

Several testified in favor the legislation early in June.

Christopher Timmis, superintendent of Dexter Community Schools, told the House Education Committee the following: “Creating a new model for schooling requires providing the opportunities to work outside of established norms, rules, laws and regulations. In order to innovate, ‘space’ must be created that allows for innovation.”

He continued: “Schools have not significantly changed in over a century. Actually, over my career, it feels as if we’ve regressed in our ability (as a complete system) to change. Standardization sounds great but realities of standardization are both hypocritical for education and stifle innovation.”

School administrators who are trying to think outside the box and meet the needs of their students and community should be encouraged by education officials -- not shot down. Yet it’s groups like the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Department of Education that are voicing opposition to the bills.

Michigan can’t continue to do things as it always has and expect different results. Allowing schools to innovate, while still holding them accountable is a step in the right direction.