Parson’s budget includes $1 million for school innovation

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson’s budget blueprint includes $1 million for schools that want to be exempted from certain state regulations.

The funding would support “innovation teams” seeking waivers from the State Board of Education to pursue initiatives to promote teacher recruitment and development, improve job training and enhance learning.

Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, is sponsoring one of the bills that could create the School Innovation Waivers program.

She sees the program as a chance for the state to say to schools, “Tell us what you think you need to do to get the job done and we’re not going to get in your way here. If you can lay the plan out, we’re not going to put some stumbling blocks in your way, for a short period of time, so you can test out your theory.”

Eslinger said an example of innovation could include training teachers in marketing and how to connect with “economic drivers” in the community. The goal would be to equip teachers with skills to develop students who are “ready to go to work” when they graduate.

The reason that kind of training might require a waiver is that “sometimes you have narrowly defined ideas of what professional development is that can be compensated,” Eslinger said.

In addition to training, the funding could also pay for equipment and renovations to help support schools’ innovations, Eslinger added.

Under her bill, the waivers wouldn’t allow schools to circumvent federal law or to ask for waivers related to teacher certification or teacher tenure. A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, would also rule out waivers related to school start dates.

But otherwise, the waivers are open-ended.

“The idea behind the innovation waiver is that the state wouldn’t prescribe to local education agencies (LEAs) what might be waived; instead, it would be up to the LEAs to determine and request what they would like to have waived to meet their particular need,” a spokesperson for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education wrote in an email.

Eslinger said the waivers could be a “lab” to discover new best practices that could then be scaled up.

Pollitt said it would be fantastic if, in the future, schools were able to tell lawmakers about successful innovations so legislators could reconsider unnecessary regulations.

As a former superintendent in Sedalia, Pollitt said he would be upset when new education regulations became law each year.

“I’d say, ‘What were they thinking when they passed that? They have no idea how I’m going to have to implement that or what that cost me to implement, and how does it help kids?’” he said.

Pollitt said he feels schools are hampered by most regulations.

“You always hear school districts making the statement or complaining that their hands are tied because of government regulations,” he said.

Charter schools are already exempt from some regulations that traditional public schools have to follow.

“I had one representative tell me, ‘You’re trying to make every school in the state a charter school,’” Pollitt said.

At education hearings this session, representatives of traditional public schools have sometimes argued that regulations make it difficult to compete with charter schools.

For example, public schools must determine teachers’ salaries with a uniform schedule based on education level and experience, Linda Quinley, chief financial and operations officer for Kansas City Public Schools, said during a hearing Jan. 26.

“We lost a fabulous young math teacher to a charter school during the middle of the school year because that charter school was able to negotiate his pay,“ she said.

Brent Ghan of the Missouri School Boards’ Association said in an email that the group has not yet taken a position on either bill because the bills also contain other provisions that the association hasn’t fully examined.

But Ghan did express support for the idea of innovation waivers.

There “already is a lot of innovation going on in Missouri’s public schools,” he wrote. “This plan would encourage even more innovation by providing funding to support waivers from provisions of state law that might be hindering school districts from implementing additional programs to serve the needs of students as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Eslinger’s bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. She said she was not sure when it would get a hearing.

Pollitt said his bill has not yet been referred to committee this year, but that it received support from 12 separate groups, with no one testifying in opposition, during a committee hearing last year.

“I don’t know the last time we had an education bill that we didn’t have opponents lined up against it,” Pollitt said.

Eslinger’s bill is SB 265. Pollitt’s bill is HB 101.

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