By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Entire school districts can request to be relieved from many of the regulations of the state Board of Education under legislation filed by two Northeast Mississippi legislators.
Both Sen. Bill Stone, D-Ashland, and Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, have filed legislation to allow the state board to create districts of innovation that would be “exempted from certain administrative regulations and statutory provisions to improve the educational performance of students within the district.”
A version of the proposal passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. This year, Stone is hopeful the proposal will pass. He has 16 co-sponsors, including Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.
Turner said, “This is not lowering standards,” but instead “gives them the flexibility to try innovative ways to achieve their goals.”
Last year, the Legislature passed after contentious debate an enhanced charter school bill. Charters don’t have to adhere to many of the guidelines and governance requirements of traditional public schools as long as they meet certain standards.
Stone said last year he opposed charter schools, but thinks “creating a framework within the existing public school structure” to give educators more options for innovation is a good idea.
Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said he supports the concept. He said the program could have a lot of uses – such as a district of innovation allowing a specific person with no teaching certification to teach a specific class or allowing a district of innovation to give a student credit for a particular class without being in the class a required number of days if the student meets certain academic benchmarks.
“If this becomes law, I can assure you we will be making application to be a district of innovation,” Childress said. “We definitely need flexibility to do some of the things we want to do” to improve student performance.
The legislation is one of the recommendations of the Commission of the Future of Northeast Mississippi. The Commission was created to develop a cohesive economic development plan for the 17 counties served by CREATE, a nonprofit community foundation based in Tupelo.
Lewis Whitfield, CREATE senior vice president, said the commission came up with the districts of innovation, patterned after legislation in other states, to address the state’s high dropout rate and the achievement gap in academic performance among racial and economic groups.
Whitfield said the intent of the recommendation is “not to slam” the current public education system. “We’re really asking leadership on the local level to take the initiative and come forward and say we want to try something different,” he said.
The districts of innovation still would be under the regulatory authority of the state Board of Education. A separate board was created to approve and monitor charter schools.
Under the legislation, the state board could approve up to five districts of innovation per year. A district would submit an application outlining its plans and goals to the board. A district would have the label for five years.
“They will be monitored,” Turner said. “If they don’t meet expectations, they will lose the ability to be a district of innovation.”
Stone stressed, “This doesn’t make anybody do anything.”
A district could single out particular schools within the district for innovative teaching under the legislation.
When asked if the districts of innovation concept should be extended to all districts, Stone said, “There may be a day where we are able to do more than just five per year. We just need to start and see how it goes.”
Whitfield stressed that the schools would not be relieved from any safety requirements or academic standards. He said the districts might be given the option to manipulate their school calendar in a way they cannot under existing law.