By NICK KIPPER
Capital News Service
LANSING — School districts would be able to shift to a system that advances kids by competency rather than grade level if the Legislature approves a recently introduced bill.
The bill would allow school districts to apply directly to the state superintendent to become a classified Public Innovative District.
“Competency-based education has been a phrase and model used for some time now, or at least in theory,” said Mitch Albers, the assistant director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards. “I think this public innovation district is just a new phrasing.”
The Association of School Boards, representing school boards statewide, is analyzing the bill before taking a formal position.
Some local officials support the concept.
“Some students need the gift of time in order to achieve mastery of key concepts,” said Mike Burde, assistant superintendent of Kenowa Hills Public Schools, northwest of Grand Rapids. “However, some students can already demonstrate mastery and we need to provide pathways for them to take learning to deeper levels or apply it in a different context.”
The competency-based education model has been used in career and technical education programs for some time, but only a handful of K-12 school districts have begun implementing it, Albers said.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s Marshall Plan for Talent in April awarded $500,000 to seven Michigan school districts to implement competency-based learning: Alpena Public Schools, Kenowa Hills Public Schools, Armada Area Schools, FlexTech High School – Novi, Fraser Public Schools, Schoolcraft Community Schools and Tecumseh Public Schools.
“This is a new policy conversation for expanding beyond career technical education programs and into the general K-12 population,” Albers said. “That’s not specifically spelled out in this bill. We don’t know if that has to be at the district level or from building to building so the legislation bill does have some clarification questions that are necessary.”
Albers said many questions remain about the bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, who chairs the Education Reform Committee.
“There are a lot of buzzwords and catchphrases that are not defined,” Albers said. “One is ‘anytime, anyplace, any pace education’ and that is just in quotations in the legislation without any definition so that is another concern.”
Kelly said the idea is to give local school officials more authority.
“If you talk to a lot of different teachers and educators, they say they spend an inordinate amount of time in compliance with a lot of regulations, whether it’s from Washington or Lansing,” he said. “This is basically opening up local control to say ‘do what’s best for your students however you think you can do that.’”
The main reasons for classifying a district as innovative is to establish a system where kids progress at their own pace instead of with their grade, Kelly said. The legislation would also prohibit waiving the minimum number of hours [1,096] and days  of pupil instruction for alternative education programs or other innovative programs approved by the Department of Education.
“It shouldn’t be with how many hours or how many days but how effective the instruction should be,” Kelly said.
According to the House Fiscal Agency, the bill would increase costs for the state and could increase costs for school districts applying and operating as a Public Innovative District.
Martin Ackley, director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs at the Department of Education, said the department is still reviewing and analyzing the legislation.
Kelly said he would like to get the bill out of the Education Reform Committee and onto the House floor before the end of the year.