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School board to seek state waiver

Parents concerned move is more than it appears


A parent group is circulating a petition urging the Douglas County School Board to host community meetings about some potential school district changes.

The board adopted a resolution Sept. 2 to submit an innovation waiver to the Colorado Board of Education.

The waiver could free district schools from some state statutes and rules, including mandated tests. In the resolution, the board cites specific concerns with 2012's Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act.

School leaders said the resolution only involves the READ Act, and individual schools must have support from staff and committees to participate in a waiver from the test.

Douglas County School District legal counsel Rob Ross emphasized during the Sept. 2 meeting that the waivers would be on a school-by-school basis, and “expressly conditioned on those schools getting evidence of support of their SAC (School Accountability Committee).”

Each school's teaching staff also must support the idea before it can move forward, according to an email from DCSD spokeswoman Paula Hans. Schools can later choose to discontinue participation in the waiver, she wrote.

But some parents believe the board's submission is an indication of bigger district-level plans. They want a public discussion of the idea before it goes any further.

Laura Mutton, president of the Strong Schools Coalition, is gathering signatures on a petition that will urge the board to hold such meetings, “so the community can come and understand what their plans are in terms of becoming an innovation district.”

According to the Colorado Department of Education, “The Innovation Schools Act provides a pathway for schools and districts to develop innovative practices, better meet the needs of individual students and allow more autonomy to make decisions at the school level.”

In a CDE-published guide for implementing 2008's Innovation Schools Act, it encourages local boards to involve teachers, administrators, parents and other community members in the process “as early as possible.”

“There is a requirement in the statue to have some evidence of community support,” Ross said at the Sept. 2 meeting. “That can be provided through a SAC if there's community representation on the SAC.”

While board members have been talking about the innovation status at school SAC meetings, Mutton said that isn't enough.

“I'm feeling like they aren't being upfront with their plans to become an innovation district,” she said. “If this is well-intended, there's no reason not to bring it up in public and let the community discuss the plan and ask for their input.”

The series of reading ability tests required for K-3 students under the READ Act is time-consuming, and the board's resolution suggests the act is inconsistent with the approaches some DCSD elementary schools prefer to use in their reading programs.

The goal of the READ Act, according to the board's resolution, “does not provide the necessary flexibility for the teachers of DCSD to choose the assessments and rigorous, innovative approaches that best assist them in guiding their students to reading proficiency.”

The resolution directs DCSD administration to assist interested elementary schools with filing an application under the Innovation Schools Act “for flexibility to use alternate, locally developed and approved means of meeting the goals of the READ Act …”

District leaders said school staff they've consulted with so far express support for the idea.

“Schools are being forced to put time and dollars behind tests they don't value or need for some students,” superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said. “It's not a lack of interest and accountability at all. The bar for the READ Act is so incredibly low; we're asking to do more for students in a better, more personalized way.”

Absent the READ Act requirements, individual schools would determine the best way to assess students.

Several other parents also question the district's intent in submitting the innovation waiver. Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education and a plaintiff in the voucher case, said the resolution should sound alarms within the community.

“They made it sound like it's just to get waivers for state testing, and it is so much more than that,” she said. “It empowers the board to basically control a school, even more than they do now. It truly is another arm to privatize education.”

Barnard noted that the move, like DCSD's voucher program, is a product of the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC's model legislation includes an Innovation Schools and School Districts Act, as well as a Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act. DCSD's voucher program is more formally known as the choice scholarship program.

ALEC is a nonprofit organization of state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts model state-level legislation. According to its website, ALEC "works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America's state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.”


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