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

Districts of Innovation were authorized by the Texas Legislature in 2015 to give school districts more local control. Promoting innovation can be a good thing. But if anything has proven true in the past couple of years, it’s that many of the DOI plans submitted to the Texas Education Agency lack innovation. Instead they focus on exemptions from state law as a means to cut costs or as a matter of convenience. And there is very little accountability to ensure districts follow the rules or exemptions outlined in their DOI plans. This can make it difficult for teachers to know where they stand.

School districts with DOI status can exempt themselves from many provisions of the Education Code, including those that protect teachers. The only things off limits are laws on academic and financial accountability, student assessment and district governance. Districts also cannot be exempt from laws related to the education of special populations, such as special education or English-language learners. 

Members often reach out to TCTA attorneys with questions about duty-free lunch, planning periods, certification, contracts, attendance policies and more. Before Districts of Innovation, answers and advice were based largely on the Texas Education Code. Now, attorneys first check whether a district has an innovation plan and what the plan encompasses before discussing a teacher’s legal rights and options. Nearly 600 school districts now have DOI plans on file; nearly half of TCTA’s local affiliates are in school districts with at least one exemption from the Texas Education Code. 

The most popular exemption is the school start date, with a high percentage of districts waiving the state’s uniform start date of the fourth Monday in August. Along with potentially shortening summer breaks, especially for teachers switching school districts, it also changes the date before which teachers can resign without facing potential sanctions for contract abandonment. Teachers have until 45 days before the first day of instruction to resign from a contract without permission from the school district. In districts where DOI plans allow rolling start dates each year, it can be difficult to keep track of this important deadline. Legislation filed in the 2017 regular session that sought to repeal or change the law requiring districts to start classes no earlier than the fourth Monday in August failed to pass, leaving the door open for more districts to create DOI plans with this exemption in the future.

Other common DOI plan provisions include exemption from Texas Education Code § 21.003, the law that requires districts to hire certified teachers, and exemption from the duty to maintain a 22:1 student-teacher ratio in grades K-4. The state already offers waivers from certification in career and technology education courses and other hard-to-fill positions in many cases, along with waivers for class sizes, especially in districts dealing with rapid growth. It seems these exemptions are claimed in DOI plans mainly in an effort to reduce paperwork filed with the state, increase class sizes in lower grades, and make it easy for districts to hire uncertified teachers without notifying parents that the district hired an uncertified teacher to teach their children. The troublesome gray area in many of the districts with these exemptions is that there is no way to enforce class-size limits or prevent districts from hiring non-certified teachers in core subjects or forcing certified teachers to teach outside their certification areas.

Despite filing legislation that would have put some protections in place, state lawmakers have done little to rein in Districts of Innovation. But one bill did make its way to the governor’s desk that may help increase accountability. Senate Bill 1566 will help ensure adopted DOI plans are easily accessible by the public. SB 1566 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst / Rep. Ken King includes several provisions regarding school district and charter school powers and duties. Among them is a TCTA-initiated provision that requires Districts of Innovation to post the current DOI plan on the district’s website, and to within 15 days of adoption send a new or revised plan to TEA, which must promptly post the plan on the TEA website. This provision goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year, and should provide greater accountability in districts with DOI status. 

TEA can’t do much to enforce rules and procedures outlined in DOI plans, unless finance rules are broken in the process. But with the plans easily visible on websites, teachers, parents and students can be aware of district procedures and bring breaches to the attention of the school board.

How it works

Most school boards start the District of Innovation process by adopting a resolution. After a public hearing, the board can decide to pursue DOI status and appoint a committee to develop a plan. The board can appoint the district-level site-based decision-making committee or a different group to develop a plan. At the public hearing that takes place before the board appoints a DOI plan committee, teachers can ask for effective representation on the committee to address the needs of teachers. 

Regardless of which group develops a DOI plan, it must be approved by the district-level site-based decision-making committee, which is required to 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.

Once the district-level site-based decision-making committee approves a DOI plan with a majority vote in a public meeting, trustees can adopt a plan by a two-thirds vote after the district posts the plan online for 30 days. 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 at any time. 

TCTA can help

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.