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Minn. Board Frees District From Most Regulations

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The Minnesota state board of education has moved to spur school innovation by approving an unprecedented waiver freeing an entire school district from nearly all state rules.

The board agreed last month to grant the three-year waiver to North Branch, a district located in the outer suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

North Branch already has five waivers from specific state rules. The board's action last month, however, marked the first time the state has granted a district a blanket exemption from most education regulations.

"We are doing this as a learning experiment for the rest of the districts in the state, and we hope they can find some things that work,'' said John Plocker, the chairman of the state board. "North Branch has had a history of being innovative, and the things they are trying seem to be working quite well.''

The waiver was opposed, however, by disability-rights advocates and state and local teachers' unions, which said it gave the district too much freedom.

"It would give the district a blank check to do whatever it wants, and we can't support that,'' said Janice Kozlovsky, a co-president of the North Branch Education Association.

Ms. Kozlovsky said the union was particularly troubled because district officials have not said what they intend to do with the waiver.

Superintendent James Walker of North Branch acknowledged that the district had no specific educational innovation in mind for the waiver.

"What this does,'' he said, "is give us the ability to experiment if teachers come up with a new idea.''

'Second Tier' Effect

Mr. Walker said the district petitioned for the waiver two years ago in response to a new law permitting the establishment of "charter schools''--independent public schools that operate under contract with a local school board.

The first of its kind in the nation, the Minnesota law allows up to eight schools to operate free from state and local regulations, provided they meet agreed-upon outcomes in their charters with local school boards.

"We took the position we could compete with anybody--even charter schools--if we played on the same race track,'' Mr. Walker said.

The board's action is among a number of "second-tier effects'' stemming from the pioneering charter-schools law, said Ted Kolderie, a senior associate for the Minneapolis-based Center for Policy Studies.

Two bills pending in the legislature, for example, seek to expand the number of such schools permitted in the state and to allow entire districts to become chartered.

In addition, the state board and lawmakers are reviewing existing state education rules with an eye to scrapping those that are cumbersome or outdated.

The number of districts applying for specific waivers from the state board has also increased.

"One of the things we hear in the community is, 'If this works for charter schools, why shouldn't it work for all schools?' '' said Sen. Ember D. Reichgott, sponsor of the 1991 charter-schools bill. "The idea is to reduce the micromanagement of schools.''

A 'Velvet Hammer'

Unlike the charter-schools law, however, the waiver for North Branch does not allow the district to ignore state laws. Only regulations can be waived.

Similarly, the district will still have to comply with state health and safety rules and most special-education requirements.

The district is also required to report to the state board at least once a year on any rules it decides to ignore and to provide justification for making those changes. It would not have to provide those justifications, however, before making changes.

In addition, the board can revoke the waiver at any time.

"It's like a blanket with a velvet hammer,'' Mr. Walker said. "But if we want to do something, now we know ahead of time we can do it.''

Under the waiver, the district can change class sizes, alter the length of the school day, change teacher workloads, or make other adjustments.

The waivers the district has already obtained include permission to ignore regulations requiring the labeling of students for special education. That change was made as part of an effort to serve emotionally disturbed children in regular classrooms, Mr. Walker said.

Another waiver allows teachers to teach out of their fields of certification at a laboratory school in the district.

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