Hazard Warning: Local “Innovation Plans” Can Nullify Employee and Student Safeguards in State Law

One of the most hazardous pieces of legislation enacted by Texas lawmakers last year bears a harmless-sounding name. We refer to the law authorizing school districts to declare themselves “districts of innovation” and thereby to exempt themselves from many important safeguards of educational quality and employee, student, and parental rights in the Texas Education Code. Some of the core state laws from which “districts of innovation” can exempt themselves include:

  • Education Code Chapter 21–educator contracts, due process, and salary guarantees; teacher certification standards; appraisal rights; planning and preparation periods; duty-free lunch; disability leave.
  • Chapter 22–employee immunity from liability; employee personal leave and assault leave; the right to voluntary payroll deduction of professional dues.
  • Chapter 37–the right of classroom teachers to remove disruptive students; procedural rights of teachers and other school employees as well as students in discipline cases.
  • Many other safeguards, such as class-size limits in Chapter 25 and the law upholding teachers’ grading authority in Chapter 28 can be set aside as well by a “district of innovation.” The same goes for parental rights in various parts of the Education Code, including all of Chapter 26.

By some estimates, several dozen school districts are considering adoption of a “district of innovation” plan, but so far most of the proposals we know of have been fairly limited in scope, confined to changes in the school start date and a handful of other issues. In at least one instance, a local innovation plan focused primarily on the school start date has been withdrawn from consideration as community, parent, and educator opposition mounted.

That occurred in Brownsville ISD, where opposition was led by Brownsville AFT members. As Brownsville AFT activist Patrick Hammes explained, resistance came from a broad coalition based on practical concerns about the calendar-change proposal, not on dogmatic objections to the “district of innovation” concept per se.

The most problematic example of a “district of innovation” plan seen so far has appeared in Spring Branch ISD. There, as Spring Branch AFT President Craig Adams said in a message to members this week, the proposal promoted by district administrators would make a sweeping claim of “all permissible” exemptions instead of specifically stating each exemption claimed and the rationale for claiming it. The SBISD plan would even attempt to exempt the district from the requirements in the “district of innovation” law itself for future amendments to the plan. On both of these counts, Texas AFT’s government-relations team will use a Texas Education Agency hearing on April 25 to make the case that the Spring Branch proposal fails to meet the legal requirements of the “district of innovation” statute.

The Spring Branch school board is scheduled to vote on the local innovation plan that same day.  A two-thirds majority vote of the school board is required to okay the plan locally. If the plan is approved as is at that level, the issue of the plan’s compliance with state law would still remain to be resolved.