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Opinion: Innovation Act: Unfulfilled promise?

In 2008, after 15 years with an ever-growing number of charter schools in Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law the Innovation Schools Act.

Many thought it might be “the next big thing,” bringing a new surge of public schools seeking more control over their budget, personnel, curriculum, etc. The language in the bill and its stated purpose were promising:

The Innovation Schools Act is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making. The Act provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements.

— From Colorado Department of Education website

Rather than igniting a roaring wildfire it now seems like a mere brush fire, rather easily controlled.

Only two large districts struggling with low academic achievement, Denver Public Schools and Colorado Springs 11, have sought and received designation as districts of innovation. (The 110-student Kit Carson School District gained Innovation status to gain flexibility on the hiring and evaluation of its teachers.)

This past May, the Aurora Public Schools granted one school Innovation status so APS might become a fourth “innovation district;” the Falcon 49 School District, serving 15,000 students east of Colorado Springs, could become the fifth.

The excitement three years ago was palpable. It built on the enthusiasm of the 2007 story at Bruce Randolph, a low-performing DPS middle school headed by Kristin Waters, which “petitioned the school board and union to be the first non-charter school in Colorado to be free from union and district rules” (The Denver Post, 1/2/09).

Then Mayor John Hickenlooper was intrigued enough to pay a visit: “I’ve never heard anything like it, to be quite honest. I was very impressed A few months later, Bruce Randolph was the first Colorado school our new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wanted to see: “There is something magical happening here,” he said, adding that he hoped he could “try to take some of that magic and see if I can help spread that some other places.” (Education News Colorado, 4/28/09). Then the icing on the cake: President Barack Obama lauded the school’s turnaround effort and much-improved graduate rate in his State of the Union speech this past January.

This good-news story led to Senate Bill 130, spearheaded by then Senate President Peter Groff. It too received its share of lavish praise. Would many other Bruce Randolphs spring up? Would teacher contracts grow thinner, more flexible? Would districts, without a monopoly on so many services, be transformed; would they grow more customer-friendly in order to justify their (expensive) central office? Other Colorado bills (SB 10-191) have garnered as much attention, but many felt the Innovation Act might be a game-changer for public education, an opportunity for schools to win new freedoms.

No one today would call it “landmark legislation.” Why not? Why hasn’t the Innovation Act been used by more schools and districts? Why so little impact?

The sponsors of the bill may have designed the law with Denver very much in mind. Maybe that accounts for the fact that DPS is the one school district where it has had made some difference—with 19 Innovation schools approved. And yet even with this high number, there is little evidence the new law has accomplished significant change.

I sat down with Rob Stein, the founding principal of the “new” Manual High School, one of the first two Colorado schools to seek and gain Innovation status. During his three years leading the school he found the new law useful but flawed. He was an unabashed critic of how Denver Public Schools implemented the legislation. I thought his insights would be worth capturing and sharing.

Why hasn’t this idea taken off?

“I don’t know,” he began. “Perhaps culture. It’s Plato’s parable of the cave – most principals and teachers live in a system where they can’t see what their program can be like from the ground up. They’ve inherited a system where they don’t control the funds,” and have trouble imagining what they would do if they DID have such control.

He compared it to his relationship to software: “I’d prefer to have the company decide for me what I need. Most users like me feel the choices are too varied, it’s too confusing—so we’d rather ‘they’ can do it for us. It takes a kind of geek who says, I want this and that.”

Similarly, he said, it might be the rare school leader in public education who wants to take on all these new choices—and the responsibility that comes with it. Provide a whole new menu of choices? Invite me to design what we think is best? No thanks. You tell me what is possible, and I’ll work inside the lines.

Changes in the law?

If the first three years with this law have not fulfilled the high hopes that followed its passage, I wanted to know if it borrows enough of the advantages of the charter school law to appeal to educators who wish for more control at the site level. Can it still play an important—if less than revolutionary—role in school reform? Stein believes it still has merit, but hopes we can make some changes in the law.

One flaw, he feels, is that the district can hire the principal. As that person has the authority to take a school in a new direction, to hire around his or her own beliefs, the school’s very mission can change.

“When you sign up for a charter school you’re signing up for a school with a clear mission, and it has pretty explicit expectations.” When a charter school principal leaves, you still have that school’s board obliged to stay true to its charter and mission. In contrast, with the Innovation schools “there’s nobody defending the mission of the school.”

Governance: “Who owns the school?”

For Stein, this touches on the fundamental issue of governance. “Who owns the school?” he asks. “With an Innovation school the district still has ultimate control because it hires, supervises, and evaluates the principal, so there will be pressure to preserve the district’s status quo.” He now says that the lack of clarity on how much authority the school and principal have with the Innovation status makes “charters a better model. They have worked out the kinks.”

With Innovation schools “the district gets to restrict the flow of money and programmatic control and the hiring of the principal, while the union still gets to hang on to aspects of the working rules.”

Hence he calls Innovation schools “charter-lite.” It is not meant as a compliment. It seems “a safe way” (for districts) to allow more autonomy without giving away as much as they do when granting a charter.

Perhaps it is not too hard, but too easy to attain Innovation status

He also wonders why districts should not expect the same degree of clarity and detail in the Innovation school proposal as is required of charters when they develop their application. (Having reviewed charter applications for both the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Colorado Charter School Institute for several years, I have seen how their applications have grown increasingly detailed—and lengthy—at time 150 pages with numerous addenda, leaving less and less up in the air.) Steins says that when proposals are NOT specific about a great deal, once the school opens, the district can impose its own interpretation on the agreement—limiting just how “autonomous” the school turns out to be.

He believes that Innovation schools should not be allowed to skate by with anything less that what charter applicants must do when presenting their plan. The following contrast might be worth noting: One study found that “on average, Colorado charter authorizers approved 29 percent of the charter applications they received.”

To date, in DPS, 100 percent of the schools that have sought Innovation status have been approved; and the state board has approved ALL of the Innovation applications submitted by three districts, including DPS (confirmed by email messages from DPS and CDE). One might even conclude — not that we have too few Innovation schools — but too few that are pushing hard for substantial autonomy.

Results

The goal of reform, of course, is to make a positive difference for students. The same question folks have asked of charter schools will apply to schools taking advantage of the Innovation Act: have they used their new freedoms in ways that improve academic achievement? It’s a bit early to say much.

Go to the state’s most recent annual report on the 12 schools/programs included and you will see rather low proficiency scores, on the whole, with some encouraging growth scores. But most of these schools had only spent a year with their new freedom. It may be a while before any Innovation school has the stellar outcomes of several charter schools—or even the high graduation rates seen at Bruce Randolph—that could propel more interest in this reform.

Stein points to better results at Manual in academic growth, proficiency, retention, and dropout rates compared to other Denver high schools serving a similar population. But he credits an attitude more than any new law. “It isn’t attributable to the Innovation Act,” he says; “it is attributable to a commitment from day one that we would make decisions we believed were in the best interests of the kids.”

At the time he left the district in 2010, Stein felt that the Act’s potential was not being realized because of the district’s interpretation of the law—which he considered too narrow. He did not see the district “allowing the schools to teach the curriculum other than the mandated by the district” — though the legislation states that it is (see section e in bold on page 1). In the spring of 2010 disagreements grew heated: The three DPS innovation schools, along with interested parties, sought a legal opinion to see if their reading of the Innovation Act and of their board-approved plans was correct.

The lawyers said that it was. The Post’s headline read: “‘Innovation’ DPS schools not getting autonomy required by law, attorney says” In that story, Superintendent Tom Boasberg seemed remarkably dismissive of the concerns in the letter from Kara Lawrence, the lawyer representing the Innovation schools: “There are absolutely no legal issues here. Period. Zero,” he said. “It’s not worth the paper that it is printed on. It’s a joke.” See Nancy Mitchell’s report for a more thorough examination of this dispute from last spring; how much is “resolved” a year later seems, to me, unclear.

It is terrific to hear the kind of verbal support for greater school autonomy from superintendents like Boasberg and Aurora’s John Barry. In May 2010, at a Metro Organizations for People forum, Boasberg said: “Fundamentally this is an issue that we would like all of our schools to be innovation schools – to have that sense of empowerment and that sense of responsibility that innovation schools have. I believe very firmly in the importance of trying to decentralize, trying to push decision-making power coupled with responsibility to schools and that decisions are best made at the school level….”

When Aurora recently approved the district’s first Innovative school, Barry said: “‘I’m convinced that this … will accelerate student achievement and close the achievement gap. We can take what learn at Vista PEAK and then replicate it,’ he added, saying the changes could become a model for the rest of the district.”

Actions speak louder than words. How well Colorado, and our districts, take advantage of a potentially good idea remains to be seen. But it bears watching. Our state’s application for Race to the Top funds touted our charter schools and the Innovation Act, and asserted: “Colorado is a national leader in fostering a vibrant, high-quality charter school and other opportunities to increase autonomy and flexibility for school leaders.” An excellent goal. Now, to get there….

Innovation Schools Act language

22-32.5-102. Legislative declaration. (1) THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY HEREBY FINDS THAT:

(c) IN TAILORING THE DELIVERY OF EDUCATIONAL SERVICES, IT IS ALSO IMPORTANT THAT THE PERSONS DELIVERING THOSE SERVICES, THE PRINCIPAL OF THE PUBLIC SCHOOL AND THE FACULTY EMPLOYED AT THAT SCHOOL, HAVE THE MAXIMUM DEGREE OF FLEXIBILITY POSSIBLE TO DETERMINE THE MOST EFFECTIVE AND EFFICIENT MANNER IN WHICH TO MEET THEIR STUDENTS’ NEEDS;

(e) WHILE THE ULTIMATE RESPONSIBILITY FOR CONTROLLING THE INSTRUCTION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS CONTINUES TO LIE WITH THE SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION OF EACH PUBLIC SCHOOL, EACH SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION IS STRONGLY ENCOURAGED TO DELEGATE TO EACH PUBLIC SCHOOL A HIGH DEGREE OF AUTONOMY IN IMPLEMENTING CURRICULUM, MAKING PERSONNEL DECISIONS, ORGANIZING THE SCHOOL DAY, DETERMINING THE MOST EFFECTIVE USE OF RESOURCES, AND GENERALLY ORGANIZING THE DELIVERY OF HIGH-QUALITY EDUCATIONAL SERVICES, THEREBY EMPOWERING EACH PUBLIC SCHOOL TO TAILOR ITS SERVICES MOST EFFECTIVELY AND EFFICIENTLY TO MEET THE NEEDS OF THE POPULATION OF STUDENTS IT SERVES; (Bold-mine)

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