In follow up to legislation opposed by TCTA and passed last session allowing school districts rated acceptable or higher to become “innovation districts” that can be exempt from major provisions of the Education Code, the Texas Education Agency issued proposed rules and held a public hearing April 25, 2016, to receive input. TCTA testified at the hearing, pointing out that since the law requires that a local district innovation plan cannot be adopted without the approval of the majority of the district-level decision-making committee, it was critical for the rules to make clear that the law requires the professional staff in a school district to nominate and elect professional staff representatives on the committee, with at least two-thirds of the elected representatives being classroom teachers. 

TCTA cautioned that although the law requiring that district-level committees be elected by professional staff and comprised of classroom teachers has been in place for many years, TCTA has become aware of several large school districts in which these committees were not elected.

TCTA also objected to TEA’s highlighting in the proposed rules certain parts of the Education Code that innovation districts could indicate they would be exempt from, including teacher contracts, minimum salary requirements, planning and preparation time, duty-free lunch, as well as class-size caps and student discipline laws. TCTA pointed out that by highlighting these particular provisions as those from which an innovation district could be exempt, TEA was inappropriately giving the appearance of favoring exemptions from these provisions over the many other eligible provisions that the agency chose not to list. TCTA added that the list was arbitrary and failed to fulfill the commissioner’s statutory duty to maintain a list of provisions from which innovation districts are exempt and to report each provision from which districts enrolling a majority of the students in the state are exempt. TCTA suggested that instead, the rules simply require each district to notify TEA of every provision of the Education Code from which the innovation district will be exempt. 

Finally, although the law only requires that innovation districts be subject to the same laws to which open-enrollment charters are subject, plus provisions about the organization, governance, and powers and duties of school districts, duties of superintendents and principals, state curriculum and graduation requirements, and academic and financial accountability requirements and sanctions, TCTA applauded TEA for including in the proposed rules additional provisions from which innovation districts cannot be exempt. However, TCTA pointed out that at least one major school district had recently adopted an innovation district plan that allowed the district to be exempt from the very laws that created innovation districts, thereby trying to bypass the protections in the laws regarding required employee and community input into and approval of changes to or renewal of innovation district plans. Accordingly, TCTA strongly recommended that the rules make clear that innovation districts cannot exempt themselves from these particular provisions of the Education Code.

After hearing from numerous witnesses at the hearing, TEA indicated that its plan is to consider all of the public input and to issue final rules in June.