Tell the Commissioner: Districts of Innovation Need to Follow the District of Innovation Law

A new “district of innovation” law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2015 authorizes school districts to exempt themselves from many state Education Code mandates at local discretion. But in order to do so they have to meet certain conditions set out in the new law. The commissioner of education earlier this month proposed rules to implement the “district of innovation” law, which makes up a new chapter (Chapter 12A) of the Education Code.  Now some representatives of school districts are claiming even more latitude than the law allows and want their interpretation enshrined in the commissioner’s rules.  Texas AFT is urging the commissioner to hold the line and make it clear that he will ensure the local exercise of this extraordinary new power of self-exemption from state standards will follow the law.

Meeting the conditions set out in the “district of innovation” law would seem the least that districts should have to do, given how much is at stake—including potential self-exemption from important state quality standards and safeguards like class-size limits, teachers’ contract rights, teachers’ student-discipline authority under Chapter 37. If you agree, we urge you to send the commissioner a comment (along these lines) on or before May 2, the deadline for public comments on the commissioner’s proposed rules.

At a hearing on the commissioner’s proposed rules held April 25 at the Texas Education Agency, battle was joined over the scope of districts’ self-exemption authority. At least one advocate for maximum local latitude actually argued that the commissioner has no authority to reject a proposed local “district of innovation” plan for non-compliance with the law, even though the law gives the commissioner implementation authority.

Texas AFT in testimony at the April 25 hearing made two basic points. First, a district of innovation cannot exempt itself from compliance with the conditions set out in the district-of-innovation statute. Second, a district-of-innovation plan must identify each requirement of law that the district claims exemption from and indicate how each requirement inhibits the goals of the local innovation plan.

At least one school district has put forward a district-of-innovation plan that fails to comply with the statute on both of these points. The Spring Branch ISD plan would claim “all permissible” exemptions without identifying each specific exemption sought and would create an idiosyncratic scheme for in effect “filling in the blanks” later without meeting the district-of-innovation statute’s conditions for amending a plan.

Fortunately, the commissioner’s proposed rule gets this issue right. The rule says in proposed 19 TAC Section 102.1309(b)(2) that the conditions established by law for a district’s discretionary exercise of district-of-innovation authority are not the sort of state requirements a district can exempt itself from under the new law. As the commissioner put it in his explanation of this rule, “a district that chooses to participate must meet certain conditions imposed by the statute on the operation of that authority.” The commissioner should not back down on this plain and simple interpretation of the law.

The commissioner also should reinforce the public-notice provision of the law, by saying expressly in the implementing rule that the “final version” of a local innovation plan, which has to be published for 30 days before adoption, must, as specified in Section 12A.003(b)(2) of the statute, “identify requirements imposed by this code that inhibit the goals of the plan and from which the district should be exempt on adoption of the plan….”

Reinforcing this statutory condition in rule language will make it clear that fair public notice must be given of the specific exemptions claimed and the rationale for each before a local school board adopts an innovation plan. The commissioner could do so by stating in the rule that the required “final version” of a proposed local innovation plan must identify “each provision from which the district seeks exemption” and must state how in the district’s view each such provision would “inhibit the goals of the plan.”

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