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Education groups praise 'education innovation' bill

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Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, primary sponsor of SB2186, a bill to allow school districts to adopt more innovative ways of teaching, speaks about the bill at a press conference Thursday in the state Capitol in Bismarck. Bill supporters in back from left are Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent of schools, Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo, and Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck.

A bill that passed unanimously in the North Dakota Senate last week that would allow school districts to adopt innovative learning techniques has received support from education groups in the state.

“We call it the education innovation bill. It’s the product of a lot of hard work by the people who are here today and many others across the state who are in their schools today," State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said at a press conference Thursday.

The bipartisan bill, SB2186, passed 44-0 in the Senate Friday, and is now headed to the House.

Baesler said it is "one of the most important education bills to be introduced this session for our students’ futures.”

The idea for the bill originated in 2013 when a group of educators from across the the state met to analyze what other states were doing to promote innovation in learning, Baesler said.

“We found that while many schools (in North Dakota) were doing pioneering work, there was a lack of flexibility in state policy,” she said.

The bill would allow districts to develop alternative ways of teaching and learning, such as combining classes and offering service learning projects. The bill would allow public schools to offer what charter schools can, Baesler said.

Districts would draft plans after consulting with teachers, parents and community members, and would have to receive approval from their school board. Their plans would then be submitted to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

Those who support the measure say it would reform education in the state, and allow for more flexibility within schools.

“As these students have changed in the past 20 years, so have my priorities and what I teach them," said Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, an English teacher at Century High School and primary sponsor of the bill.

“As a high school teacher, I am particularly excited about the opportunities we have to redefine the senior year, to reduce our focus on standardized tests, and really look at educating our kids more holistically," she said.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, co-sponsor of the bill, said it's the "perfect of example of what incredible opportunities can be accomplished by disregarding partisanship."

The bill allows teachers, administrators and the school board to have the ability to take up creative education ideas, Oban said.

“You shouldn’t make any mistake, however, innovation is going on right now,” said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United. “What this will end up doing, though, is it will release those teachers and those schools districts from really, quite frankly, well-meaning but unneeded bounds around them now.”

Under this measure, any district can submit a plan to DPI. 

"This bill does not require additional money. It encourages districts to seek better results with the money that they already have," Baesler said.

In addition, it would also put into place a framework, so that over a three to five year period, districts can analyze their results and the state can then determine better use of professional development days and resources, Baesler said.

“Our administrators are so excited about this," said Aimee Copas, director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders. 

“I remember about a year or two years ago, about this time, I stood here with Superintendent Baesler and we talked about the excellent opportunities that were right ahead of us with the passed of (Every Student Succeeds Act),” she said. “We see now that passed, and the federal government is really handing that education back to the states. And now we’re asking for the states to hand it back to the local districts, and trust our teachers and administrators to do the right thing.”

If the bill passes in the House, Baesler said four districts have already indicated they are interested in filing plans with DPI, including Bismarck, Fargo, Richland County and Northern Cass.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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