This article appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Texas has more than 1,200 public school districts, so it’s understandable that what works in one place may not always be good education policy in another. That’s why some districts are taking advantage of a 2015 law that allows them to become exempt from many provisions of the Texas Education Code — but are they making wise choices?

While these Districts of Innovation seem like a good way to experiment and tailor state law to local objectives and give districts the ability to do the most with their already stretched dollars, some of the exemptions have the potential to be harmful to students’, teachers’ and parents’ rights.

Texas Education Code §12A.004 prohibits innovation districts from being exempt from requirements that apply to open-enrollment charters; from sections related to district organization and governance, school board powers and duties; from state curriculum and graduation requirements; and from academic and financial accountability and sanctions. It also limits districts that can pursue innovation status to those rated academically acceptable or better by the state. But a glance at 2015’s ratings (the latest available in mid-July) shows about 95 percent of the state’s districts are eligible.

As of mid-July, 12 districts had completed the process and were recognized as Districts of Innovation by the Texas Education Agency. (Click here for an overview of their exemptions). Several dozen more began the process in the spring, appointing committees to write plans, and even more are expected to form committees in the coming year. (Click here to learn more about them, and to see the steps involved to become an innovation district.)

Potential exemptions

With only a few aforementioned areas from which districts cannot be exempt, the door is wide open for changes that can take away teacher rights and benefits. Among the laws districts may choose to ignore:

  • State personal leave days
  • State minimum salary schedules
  • Duty-free lunch and conference periods
  • Teacher certification requirements
  • Teacher contract rights, including making teachers at-will employees and hampering the ability to file grievances
  • Minimum attendance requirements for class credit 
  • Teacher authority over grading
  • Teacher appraisals
  • Class-size limits
  • A teacher’s right to remove disruptive students
  • Required minutes of instruction
  • Uniform school start dates
  • Parent and student rights, including transfer rights and the right to parent notice of unsatisfactory grades

A review of working plans from several districts shows exemptions from school start dates, K-4 class-size ratios, teacher appraisals and teacher certification as key areas of interest. District leaders say they want to even out the number of days in fall and spring semesters to improve student performance; allow superintendents, rather than TEA, to approve class-size ratios above 22:1; adopt evaluation systems that combine parts of the state-recommended system with best practices; and let local standards determine who is qualified to teach hard-to-fill positions, such as career and technical education and STEM classes. At least one district tried to get exempted from bilingual educator certification, which the state and federal law will not allow. 

Plans encroach on rights

Supporters of the District of Innovation concept in 2015 (including school board/administrator groups, along with affiliated associations such as Raise Your Hand Texas), expressed their desire for flexibility that would increase local control and the “freedom to innovate.” 

Judging from the plans filed to date, it appears that certified teachers and small class sizes are considered to be major impediments to innovative education.

TCTA believes that while there may be some cumbersome statutes in the Education Code, state law establishes a baseline of protections not only for teachers, but for students and parents as well. 

While the 12 plans finalized as of mid-July do not include exemptions from teacher legal protections, they do encroach on key aspects of the profession, including the importance of teacher certification and the benefits of small student-to-teacher ratios. And just because the first 12 districts haven’t (yet) chosen to eliminate teacher contracts or reduce leave days doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The key word in all the plans is “flexibility”. How that flexibility will impact teachers and students remains to be seen, but the experiment has the potential to do more harm than good if teachers don’t speak up for their rights as the plans are written.

It is crucial that teachers get involved in the process through their district-level decision-making committees, which must approve the innovation plan. Districts will also appoint a committee (which may or may not be the same as the district-level decision making committee) to develop the plan, including the exemptions from law required to implement it, and it’s important that these committees also include informed, vocal classroom professionals. Volunteer for the committee(s) in your district and be at the table when decisions are made.