Districts of Innovation threaten safeguards for a quality education

Those working in public education are accustomed to the ever-changing jargon and evolving language around the latest and greatest ideas to improve public education. Usually, these terms are rehashed and rebranded concepts, only repackaged for the next generation.

Example: the Texas Legislature, in the last days of the last session in 2015, sneaked through a last-minute curveball with an Orwellian name. This legislation (inserted into HB 1842) allows school districts to define themselves as a District of Innovation (DOI) and thereby exempt themselves from having to follow state laws under the Texas Education Code. At first glance, who can be against innovation, right?

Unfortunately, the name doesn’t fit. Backers of the law claimed that giving districts “flexibility”—another buzzword at the Capitol—to sidestep certain sections of the state Education Code would free them from constraints and allow them to “innovate.”

However, in the false name of innovation, the most important measures of protection for students, parents and teachers that took decades to create are thus jeopardized by this law.
Through this local process of self-exemption from state law, a DOI can hire uncertified teachers, terminate teachers without due process, not provide paid leave and assault leave to educators attacked by a student, hire principals with no education background, take away duty-free lunch, and deny educators guaranteed individual planning time. Moreover, a DOI can exempt itself from the 22-to-1 class size cap for grades K-4. Privacy laws around videotaping children can also be ignored. The Safe Schools Act in Chapter 37 is the part of the Texas Education Code dealing with student removal and expulsions for serious discipline issues that undermine the safety of both learners and teachers. The new DOI law would allow for self-exemption from the entire Safe Schools Act, which allows teachers to write referrals and remove students based on school safety standards.

Supporters of the DOI legislation maintain that local power to pick and choose what parts of the Education Code to follow would give districts the freedom to operate more like charter schools. That’s interesting, since most local school districts outperform charter schools. One would think that the push would be for charter schools to become more like traditional public schools!

So what does it take to be a DOI? Any school district rated acceptable under state accountability standards may initiate the process with a school board resolution or a petition signed by a majority of a district-level decision-making committee. After holding a public hearing on the matter, a school board then can appoint a committee to create an innovation plan, which then must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the board and a simple majority of the district-wide committee. That plan must outline what exemptions the district is claiming from state law and report that information to the Texas Education Agency.

TEA has posted the 31 districts that have declared themselves Districts of Innovation and their innovation plans on its website. (You can find it at www.tinyurl.com/districtsofinnovation.) Most of the districts have been attracted to the process by one exemption I haven’t mentioned yet—the ability to choose school start dates, instead of following the current law mandating a start no earlier than the fourth Monday in August.

We can’t begrudge districts for wanting to tweak start dates to meet local needs. But several districts also exempted themselves from the K-4 class-size law. Many of these districts have justified the move by saying that it lets them add a kid or two to a class instead of hiring a new teacher—something that hundreds of districts do annually anyway after filling out a simple request for a waiver from TEA. However, the DOI exemption also lets them break the cap without notifying parents—something required with the waiver process. In fact, TEA reportedly has been telling districts that they should go ahead and become a DOI instead of applying for waivers.

One district, Spring Branch ISD, went so far as to say it wouldn’t define specific exemptions from state law in its plan and instead would pick and choose anything it felt was needed as the district went along—subject to a two-thirds vote of its board.

All of this is very disturbing and far from innovative. The word innovation has been hijacked, since it should have been reserved for what’s really needed in public education—the freedom to stop teaching to the test and to allow for more creative means of accountability. (Alas, exempting oneself from required test-driven accountability standards is not allowed under the law.)

Here’s where you come in as educators and parents. Hearing a proposal in your district for these three words—District of Innovation—should serve as an alarm bell for you to get involved and ensure that districts are only looking for true flexibility in things like start dates and aren’t trying to wriggle their way out from the safeguards like teacher rights and class-size caps that are crucial to successful school environments. Some of our local unions have served as defenders of key provisions of the Education Code in districts that have sought DOI status.

But where we don’t have local organizations, it’s incumbent on you to stand up for your rights and seek assistance from your state team here at Texas AFT.

There’s a reason why we have laws protecting teachers from arbitrary actions against them and why we require time given to teachers to plan and prepare for class. There’s a reason why we have set standards for ensuring safe schools, providing for parental rights and keeping our class sizes small. These safeguards need to be defended, so they can function as a foundation for successful schools.

And with a good foundation, I’m sure districts can still find room to innovate.

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