The Texas Education Agency (TEA) closed the loop on a controversial new initiative by releasing final commissioner rules on Districts of Innovation this week

The Legislature enacted HB 1842 in 2015, which provided in part for a new program allowing any school district rated at least “acceptable” to exempt itself from numerous provisions of the Education Code, including student, parent and teacher rights and benefits. TCTA vigorously opposed the legislation, arguing that it was not evidence-based, threatened to undermine key statutory provisions that have long provided a baseline of protections for teachers, parents and students, and was too broadly available to school districts that were mediocre in performance, given that districts with merely “acceptable” accountability ratings were eligible (95 percent of school districts in Texas earned an acceptable rating in 2015). For more information on what the law provides regarding innovation districts, click here.

Proponents of the concept argued that the playing field should be leveled between traditional school districts and charter schools, which have freedom from many of the provisions of the Education Code (although again, the evidence shows that overall, charter school performance lags behind traditional public school performance).

Once HB 1842 passed, attention turned to TEA, since the legislation gave the commissioner of education broad rulemaking authority on the matter. Of particular interest was whether the commissioner would issue rules putting additional limitations on Districts of Innovation. TEA issued the proposed rules in early April for public comment and held a hearing as well. TCTA was pleased to see that the proposed rules expanded the list of laws from which districts of innovation cannot be exempt, but noted that the list was arbitrary and didn’t include particularly important provisions like class-size limits, student discipline measures, teacher and parent rights, and teacher benefits. 

TCTA submitted comments on the proposed rules and testified at the hearing, focusing particular attention on the fact that, given that District of Innovation plans can only be implemented upon approval of a majority of the statutorily required district-level decision-making committee, it was important for the rules to require that these committees be properly formed. Statute requires the district-level committee to include representative professional staff who are nominated and elected by the professional staff in the district. At least two-thirds of the elected professional staff representatives must be classroom teachers. The remaining staff representatives must include both campus- and district-level professional staff members.

The final rules include changes requested by TCTA, including specifying that the district-level committee also can serve as the committee developing the innovation plan, and that Districts of Innovation must notify the commissioner any time they amend, rescind or renew their plans. The rules become effective Sept. 13, 2016.

During the time TEA was developing rules, a good number of school districts notified the commissioner that they had adopted innovation plans (there were 29 districts listed on the TEA website as of Sept. 8, 2016). Upon reviewing their plans, TCTA became increasingly concerned about the large number of districts exempting themselves from teacher certification and class-size limits, and pointed this out in testimony to the Senate Education Committee. TCTA testified that in exempting themselves from statutory class-size limits instead of pursuing a waiver from TEA, districts were skirting requirements to notify parents of students whose classes exceeded the limits. Additionally, in giving invited testimony to the Senate Education Committee on raising standards for teacher preparation programs, TCTA pointed out that allowing districts to unilaterally exempt themselves from teacher certification requirements as Districts of Innovation was directly at cross purposes with the state’s obvious desire to raise standards in teacher preparation, leading to certification.

What are the rules?

A board of trustees may not vote on the final approval of the innovation plan if the district is assigned with either a preliminary or final rating below acceptable performance.

If a resolution is adopted by the board of trustees, or upon receipt of a petition signed by a majority of the members of the district-level committee, the board shall hold a public hearing within 30 days to consider if the district should develop a local innovation plan for the designation of the district as an innovation district.

“District-level committee” has the meaning assigned by the Texas Education Code, Section 11.251.

“Innovation plan committee” is a committee appointed by the board of trustees to develop the innovation plan in accordance with statutory requirements. The district-level committee, as described above, may also serve in this role. (TCTA-requested provision)

At the conclusion of the public hearing, or within 30 days after conclusion of the public hearing, the board of trustees may:

(1) decline to pursue designation of the district as an innovation district; or

(2) appoint an innovation plan committee to develop a local innovation plan in accordance with TEC Section 12A.003.

The board of trustees may outline the parameters around which the innovation plan committee may develop the plan.

Prior to designation as an innovation district, a local innovation plan must be developed for the school district and shall meet the plan requirements as outlined in statute and the rules.

The plan must be clearly posted on the district's website for the term of the designation as an innovation district.

The board of trustees may not vote on adoption of a proposed local innovation plan unless:

(1) the final version of the proposed plan has been available on the district's website for at least 30 days;

(2) the board of trustees has notified the commissioner of education of the board's intention to vote on adoption of the proposed plan; and

(3) the district-level committee established under TEC Section 11.251 has held a public meeting to consider the final version of the proposed plan and has approved the plan by a majority vote of the committee members. This public meeting may occur at any time, including up to or on the same date at which the board intends to vote on final adoption of the proposed plan.

A board of trustees may adopt a proposed local innovation plan by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the membership of the board.

Prohibited exemptions

An innovation district may not be exempted from the following sections of the Texas Education Code and any adopted rules related to these sections:

A state or federal requirement, imposed by statute or rule, applicable to an open-enrollment charter school operating under the TEC, Chapter 12, Subchapter D, including, but not limited to, the requirements listed in TEC Section 12.104(b), and in the following Education Code statutes:

  • Chapter 22, Subchapter B (immunity for school district employees, officers and volunteers);
  • Chapter 25, Subchapter A, Sections 25.001 (Admission), 25.002 (Requirements for Enrollment), 25.0021 (Use of Legal Surname), 25.0031 (Tuition for Students Holding Certain Student Visas), and 25.004 (Tuition for Certain Military Dependents Prohibited);
  • Chapter 28, Sections 28.002 (Required Curriculum, 28.0021 (Personal Financial Literacy), 28.0023 (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Automated External Defibrillator Instruction), 28.005 (Language of Instruction), 28.0051 (Dual Language Immersion Program), 28.006 (Reading Diagnosis), 28.016 (Instruction in High School, College, and Career Preparation), 28.0211 (Satisfactory Performance on Assessment Instruments Required; Accelerated Instruction), 28.0213 (Intensive Program of Instruction), 28.0217 (Accelerated Instruction for High School Students), 28.025 (High School Diploma and Certificate; Academic Achievement Record) 28.0254 (Posthumous High School Diploma for Certain Students), 28.0255 )Three-Year High School Diploma Pilot Program), 28.0258 (High School Diploma Awarded on Basis of Individual Graduation Committee Review), 28.0259 (Reporting Requirements for Students Graduating Based on Individual Graduation Committee Review Process) and 28.026 (Notice of Requirements for Automatic College Admission and Financial Aide);
  • Chapter 29, Subchapter G (Public Education Grant Program);
  • Chapter 30, Subchapter A (State and Regional Programs and Services, General Provisions);
  • Section 30.104 (Credit for Completion of Educational Programs/ High School Diploma and Certificate);
  • Chapter 34 (Transportation);
  • Chapter 37, Sections 37.006(l)(Funding for Alternative Education Services in Juvenile Residential Facilities), 37.007(e)(mandatory expulsion for possession of firearm), 37.011 (Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs), 37.012 (Funding of JJAEPs), 37.013 (Coordination between School Districts and Juvenile Boards), and 37.020 (Reports Relating to Expulsions and Disciplinary Alternative Education Program Placements);
  • Chapter 39 (Public School Accountability);
  • Chapter 11, Subchapters A, C, D School District Governance, Powers and Duties), and E, (Superintendents and Principals), except that a district may be exempt from the TEC, Section 11.1511(b)(5) (requirement for board of trustees to adopt policy establishing district-and-campus-level planning and decision-making process required under TEC Section 11.251) and (14) (requirement for board of trustees to make decisions regarding termination and nonrenewal of contract employees) and Section 11.162 (School Uniforms);
  • Chapter 13 (Creation, Consolidation, and Abolition of a District);
  • Chapter 41 (Equalized Wealth Level);
  • Chapter 42 (Foundation School Program);
  • Chapter 44, Sections 44.0011, 44.002, 44.003, 44.004, 44.0041, 44.005, 44.0051, 44.006, 44.007, 44.0071, 44.008, 44.009, 44.011, 44.0312, 44.032, 44.051, 44.052, 44.053, and 44.054; (Fiscal Management provisions);
  • Chapter 45, Sections 45.003, 45.0031, 45.005, 45.105, 45.106, 45.202, 45.203 (School District Funds); and
  • Chapter 46 (Assistance with Instructional Facilities and Payment of Existing Debt).

In addition, an innovation district may not be exempted from:

  • A requirement of a grant or other state program in which the district voluntarily participates;
  • Duties that the statute applies to the execution of that power if a district chooses to implement an authorized power that is optional under the terms of the statute; and
  • Requirements imposed by provisions outside the TEC, including requirements under the Texas Government Code, Chapter 822 (TRS membership).

The term of a district's designation as a District of Innovation may not exceed five calendar years and is effective upon district approval and notification of the plan to the Texas Education Agency.

A district may only have one innovation plan at any given time.

A district's innovation plan may be amended, rescinded or renewed if the action is approved by a majority vote of the district-level committee, or a comparable committee if the district is exempt from that section, and a two-thirds majority vote of the board of trustees.

The district shall notify the commissioner of education of amendments, rescissions or renewals along with the associated TEC exemptions and local approval dates (TCTA-requested provision).

For more information about innovation districts, click here.