Idaho lawmakers push for innovation in schools

New money was the big education story coming out of this year’s legislative session in Boise. Over the next year public schools will see a $109 million increase in state funding. This is about a 7.4 percent increase in new dollars, and returns state spending on public schools to pre-recessionary levels.

But, there is more to the Idaho education story than just dollars. Lawmakers worked to ensure that new money would encourage more than the “same old same old.” They passed legislation that encourages educators to innovate and try new things. For example, the Local Innovation School Act allows up to 10 public schools a year (a total of 50 over five years) across the state to “receive flexibility from laws and policies that impede local autonomy, allowing them to be agile, innovative and empowered to adapt to local circumstances.” This change provides district schools with charter-like flexibilities and encourages them to try different instructional approaches for students.

Idaho’s new innovation law built on opportunities provided by the federal “Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).” In what could fairly be called a repudiation of the last 15 years of federal education policy Congress called on states in late 2015 to “reduce barriers and provide operational flexibility for schools in the implementation of comprehensive support and improvement activities or targeted support and improvement activities.” Idaho embraced the challenge, and is now a leader in providing a pilot program for district educators to try locally-owned and managed approaches to improve student engagement and learning.

State lawmakers also passed legislation offering public charter schools with the opportunity to develop teacher contracts better suited to their specific missions and circumstances. One proponent explained the significance of allowing charters to use contracts other than a state approved common one when she wrote, “the dynamics of the education field are changing. Teachers are not staying until retirement. Contract flexibility would increase the ability to attract the best and brightest to the classroom and promised true professionalism for educators.”

Further, lawmakers passed legislation to facilitate the growth of high-performing public charter school models through a well-defined new school replication process. This change is significant as, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, fully 26 percent of the nation’s charter schools are operated by charter management organizations that operate three or more schools in a state. This is one of the fastest growing, and highest performing, segments of the public charter school sector. This legislation should help provide new seats for some of the 11,000 students currently on charter school waitlists.

This imperative for innovation in education is driven by two forces. First, too many Idaho students, particularly those in poverty, are not receiving an education that empowers them to take control of their learning, their lives and their futures. Second, rapidly changing information technologies are encouraging, some might say demanding, schools to do things differently when it comes to: “seat time,” “student advancement, “use of staff,” and even “hours of operation.”

New money is important for Idaho’s schools. But so too is encouraging educators to try new things for the benefit of students. Idaho’s lawmakers got the balance right this legislative session.

Terry Ryan is CEO of the nonprofit organization Bluum.