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K-12 Innovation Research Zone Pilot program could be made permanent

The state’s Innovation Research Zone Pilot project has offered school districts and charters the freedom to develop and implement new and pioneering educational opportunities with the goal being that this will lead to better outcomes for students.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Sandell (DFL-Woodbury), HF4098 could expand those opportunities to more districts by modifying, codifying and making the program permanent.

The proposal was heard by the House Education Finance Division Thursday during a remote meeting, but no action was taken. A similar bill, SF4057, was heard by the Senate E-12 Finance Committee Wednesday. Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) sponsors that bill.

First put into place by the 2012 Legislature and modified in 2017, Sandell said the latest would reflect lessons that have been learned along the way.

“The intent is to strengthen a culture of encouragement for educators, and to meet opportunities that the times, technology and economics might offer,” he said.

The bill would establish up to 12 innovation zones, six in Greater Minnesota and six in the metro area. Districts or charters could partner with each other and non-school partners, including postsecondary institutions, local government, nonprofit organizations and for-profit organizations.

Applicants would be required to write a detailed proposal for their work, including:

  • how it would improve student outcomes;
  • the role of each partner;
  • research methodology;
  • exemptions to statute and rules that would be used;
  • a description of how teachers and staff would participate;
  • expected outcomes; and
  • a timeline for implementation and assessment, and how the results would be shared.

An appointed board would review and recommend projects to the Department of Education, then plans for implementation and evaluation would be put into place. Existing partnerships, under the 2017 law, would be able to submit amendments to their current plans to avoid the new approval process.

Teri Staloch, superintendent of Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, said receiving the designation and flexibility the program allows could assist them in expanding their Minnesota Center for Advanced Professional Studies. In partnership with Farmington Area Public Schools, the program offers students career-focused learning in the areas of health care and business.

“We know — especially after the last couple of weeks — that our school district and all school districts must redesign the current system, and a lack of flexibility in many areas don’t allow us to do that,” Staloch said. “We know that through this innovation zone we’ve got more flexibility.”

Schools awarded the innovation research zone status under Minnesota law receive some statutory leeway. The formally recognized status can also be helpful in arranging partnerships and defending attempts at innovation.

House nonpartisan fiscal staff told the division changes to the program could result in a cost increase to the state of $2 million in fiscal year 2021, and approximately $8.2 million in the next biennium. The bulk of that cost would be related to additional extended time revenue expenditures.  

Former education commissioner Bob Wedl spoke in support of the proposal and argued that the fiscal note assumes every student who participates in the program would be doing so outside the regular school day.

If that were the case, it would require the state to provide the district with additional extended time revenue. However, he added that presumably at least some of the students participating in the program would be doing so during the regular school day and therefore would not generate additional cost.


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