This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

 

Prospects for substantive changes to the state’s District of Innovation (DOI) law during the 85th Legislature appeared remote in early April. Pending legislation included a TCTA-initiated bill to promote transparency by requiring that DOI plans be posted on the district and TEA websites, and several bills that repeal or change the law requiring districts to start classes no earlier than the fourth Monday in August, a reason many of the nearly 230 districts with completed plans have pursued DOI status.

Basic process

Most boards start the process by adopting a resolution. After a public hearing, a board can decide to pursue DOI status and appoint a committee to develop a plan. Trustees can adopt a plan by a two-thirds vote after the district posts the plan online for 30 days and the elected district-level site-based decision-making committee approves the plan in a public meeting. The commissioner of education does not have to approve a plan, though plans must be submitted to the Texas Education Agency. Plans last for five years and a district can amend or rescind a plan.

Plan committee(s)

A school board appoints a committee to develop a plan: the board can appoint the district-level site-based decision-making committee to develop it; the board can also appoint a different group to develop a plan. Some boards have appointed plan development committees stacked with administrators. At the public hearing that takes place before the board appoints a plan committee, teachers can ask for effective representation on the committee to address the needs of teachers. 

Regardless of the composition of the plan development committee, the district-level site-based decision-making committee that must approve the plan must itself comply with Texas Education Code § 11.251. The law states that teachers must elect two-thirds of the professional staff representatives on the district-level SBDM committee. District policy DQ(Local) also controls the membership of the committee and provides for the election of teachers.

The plan

Districts of Innovation can exempt themselves from many provisions of the Education Code, including those that protect teachers. A plan cannot exempt a district from laws on accountability, student assessment and district governance. Districts also cannot exempt themselves from laws related to the education of special populations, such as special education or English-language learners. 

TCTA has noted a number of concerns with regard to District of Innovation plans.

1. Lack of innovation. The law permits districts to become Districts of Innovation in order to innovate. Many plans read as if the district adopted a plan as a matter of convenience and to cut costs.

2. Certification. Districts frequently exempt themselves from Texas Education Code § 21.003, the law that requires districts to hire certified teachers. Districts often justify the exemption because of a “need” to hire specialized career and technology education teachers. However, Texas Education Code § 21.055(d-1) gives districts the right to hire non-core CTE teachers, who have neither a baccalaureate degree nor teacher certification, but do have demonstrated professional experience and, if available, industry license or certification. Other districts assert a need to exempt themselves from the duty to hire certified teachers in order to hire teachers in a few hard-to-fill positions. What constitutes a hard-to-fill position? If a hard-to-fill position exists when a district posts a vacancy for three weeks and gets no applications, then a district may have a wide open door to hire many uncertified people to teach classes. At a time when bills before the Texas Legislature would increase the standards for teacher certification programs, it seems counterintuitive for the Legislature to give districts the ability to hire uncertified teachers.

3. Class-size ratio. Many districts have exempted themselves from the duty to maintain a 22:1 student-teacher ratio in grades K-4. Almost every plan states that the district will attempt to keep the ratio at 22:1 or, maybe, 24:1, and then states that if the ratio exceeds a stated number, the superintendent will report the excess to the board. Words like “attempt” or “intend” provide no cap and no requirement that a district keep any limit of the K-4 student-teacher ratio. 

TCTA attorneys spend many hours advising members about Districts of Innovation. TCTA members may contact their TCTA attorneys with DOI questions and other employment-related matters at 888-879-8282. More information about the process can also be found at tcta.org/districts_of_innovation.