Bill would create special educational "Innovation Zones"

MANCHESTER - Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Dan French has some ideas to change the way education is organized in Vermont.

House Bill 615, sponsored by Representatives Jeff Wilson and Cynthia Browning (D-Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate), Charles Goodwin (I- Weston, Londonderry, Winhall, Jamaica and Stratton), Patti Komline (R-Dorset, Danby, Peru, Langrove and Mt. Tabor) John Malcolm (D-Pawlet), Alice Miller (D-Shaftsbury), proposes to create special "education innovation zones" to boost educational opportunities, outcomes an operating effieciencies.

French said innovation is an idea that is talked about as a way to address challenges. He said these education innovation zones will be similar to economic innovation zones communities set up.

"Innovation today is something you have to figure out how to structure, to capitalize on, to harness," he said. "I think this concept of innovation can be found in lots of different areas of our society. Business has done this now for can say it's part and parcel of our capitalist system. Today, usually when we talk about economic innovation, we're are talking about integrating social policy with economic policy."

There are a confluence of events happening in education that made French realize innovation is necessary. Vermont is in a public education financial crisis. With a change in demographic and less children attending school, as well as rising costs of education, the model is not sustainable, he said. Also, the No Child Left Behind act is theoretically coming to an end this year and policy will have to change, he said. Finally, technology is changing the face of education.

"It's those three things coming together right now...our system of finance in the state, declining number of students, the collapse of federal education policy, what is a technological aspect to the context today," he said. "Those things again point to the need of us as a state to come up with some solutions and again, the idea of doing it from an innovation standpoint, is as in business, to acknowledge that these things are very complicated and it's unlikely that we're going to see a top down solution that's going to address them. And certainly, we are likely to see a top down solution that causes more problems than fixes."

French said he has already talked with some of the regional superintendents in his area and is now giving this idea of public education innovation to the principals to work with. Students, he said, will also be a part of these solutions. The goal of this bill is to take ideas from one supervisory union and scale it to work across the state.

"We have a lot of creativity in Vermont, we have a lot of capacity working in our school districts...but we work totally in isolation to a large extent," he said. "The idea is to challenge people to work from a systems innovation standpoint...[to] see if we can put these things together in a larger systems perspective. And then the role of the state in this bill...thier job is to be the sort of watch dog and to make sure promising practices that emerge can be shared rapidly with other districts."

Like business innovation zones, these public education innovation zones will offer incentives for programming. French said there are not financial incentives included in the bill he wrote, because that was not his focus. Instead, the incentives for these innovation zones include freedom from some of the bureaucratic regulation and being able to do what needs to be done. However, the bill is written to allow for outside funding, from either private donations or grants to be used in these zones. Anything that is created out of these zones will be licensed as open curriculum resources, meaning money cannot be made off the content.

French said the bill focuses on public education, but independent schools funded by public tax dollars will be part of the conversation. "When we talk about [schools] in this region, we talk about our educational ecosystem of which BBA is a critical, if not central part of," he said. "To think that we would think about a system without including them in the conversation would be problematic. If we're going to think as a system, we have to think with them about what are the educational needs."

Representative Jeff Wilson [Dem] of Manchester submitted House Bill 615 for French. "I filed this bill on behalf of BRSU superintendent Dan French because I thought it would give thoughtful and creative superintendents, like Dan, the freedom to develop groundbreaking programmatic initiatives," he said in an email. "Initiatives that hopefully would result in more cost effective and better educational outcomes for kids."

French said innovation has not been really utilized in Vermont in the past, but that the creativity to harness it is there.

"I would say in Vermont in particular, innovation is not a management strategy that is in particular, it's appropriate right now because we have a very complex situation that requires a rapid change in direction. Innovation can get you some place quicker, if you can structure it and discipline it."


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