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West Virginia ‘Innovation in Education’ Act Allows Flexibility to Improve STEM

The legislation will allow schools to apply for exemptions from state regulations about the hiring process for public schools and add some flexibility into the system.

(TNS) -- The West Virginia Legislature is close to passing a governor-backed bill that would allow schools to request freedom from state statutes, including personnel laws.

The Innovation in Education Act (HB 4295), which is up for a final vote in the Senate today, would end funding for the existing Innovation Zones and Local Solution Dropout Prevention and Recovery Innovation Zones.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has planned on reallocating $2.5 million from the current Innovation Zones program to the new Innovation in Education program.

“By giving our teachers and students the opportunity to drive education, this program provides similar flexibilities offered by charter schools but adapts those concepts to better serve our state's students,” Tomblin spokeswoman Shayna Varner wrote in an email to the Gazette-Mail.

A bill to allow West Virginia's first charter schools didn't move forward this session, but Tomblin's proposed alternative has. It allows schools to request flexibility to innovate to improve education in certain areas, including entrepreneurship and science, technology, engineering and math, often called STEM.

Innovation in Education plans would have to be developed by a school's principal and faculty with input from its Local School Improvement Council, the local school board, the local superintendent and, if the school is a high school, the school's students.

The bill would allow schools to request that the state Board of Education grant them freedom from state board policies. But it also allows schools to request waivers from state laws — though individuals interviewed by the Gazette-Mail Monday said state law waivers would require further approval from lawmakers.

Current law bans schools and school systems from requesting, under the Innovation Zone program, exemptions to certain state personnel regulations.

One of the sections schools currently can't request waivers from is titled: “Assignment, transfer, promotion, demotion, suspension and recommendation of dismissal of school personnel by superintendent; preliminary notice of transfer; hearing on the transfer; proof required.” Another is entitled “seniority rights for schools service personnel.”

But the Innovation in Education Act would remove that ban, leaving just a ban on requesting exemptions, or the state school board granting exemptions, to “any assessment program required by the state board or any provision of law or policy required by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 or other federal law.”

“This bill does allow a wider list of potential exemptions,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman wrote in an email to the Gazette-Mail, “but they would still go through schools' Local School Improvement Councils and then the Legislative Oversight Committee on Educational Audits.”

Stadelman did not respond to a further emailed inquiry. The bill references the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, which is a group of lawmakers from both the House and Senate.

Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the state Department of Education, said it's not her interpretation of the bill that the state school board would newly be able to grant schools' requests for exemptions from state statutes involving personnel and other issues without further approval from the Legislature.

“The language in the bill appears to be broad enough to include requests to waive any statute,” Hutchens wrote in an email. “However, the bill provides that waiver requests would have to occur through the [Local School Improvement Council] process set forth in W.Va. Code 18-5A-3, which requires that all requests to waive statute be presented to LOCEA [and ultimately the entire Legislature] for approval.”

©2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.