Besides exemption from teacher certifications, a DOI designation could allow flexibility in the school calendar, higher class-size caps and lower mandatory attendance rates, said Robbin Gesch, Round Rock ISD chief of teaching and learning. Gesch first proposed exploring DOI status at the board of trustees’ May 19 meeting. The seven-member board voted unanimously to move forward with the idea.
The DOI designation was created in 2015 when state lawmakers passed Texas House Bill 1842. The bill allows school districts to adopt a local innovation plan that provides for more flexible operating models, including some exemptions from state regulations previously offered only to charter schools.
Other states have passed similar bills in recent years, including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia.
District of Innovation status would give Texas school districts more flexibility in exchange for exemption from state regulations. Interested districts would create an innovation plan outlining what they would seek in terms of flexibility and exemptions. An example is El Paso ISD, which is implementing a DOI plan to focus on making students bilingual, biliterate and bicultural.[/caption]
The road to innovation
RRISD is one of many districts in Texas that are considering or have passed resolutions to explore becoming DOIs, including Hutto and Pflugerville ISDs. The Texas Education Agency must now adopt rules to define the process.
TEA Spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said public comments surrounding the rules were still under review, as of press day July 29. Once the rules are adopted, they will take effect in 20 days, she said.
Interested school districts are using the TEA’s proposed rules to get started on the process.
A district can become a DOI only after it develops a local innovation plan with public input and approval from an elected district-level committee and the school board.
The RRISD board of trustees unanimously voted to form a committee to develop an innovation plan after a public hearing at its June 23 meeting, during which only one member of the public spoke.
The 15-member, board-appointed committee—which includes principals from elementary, middle and high schools; two teachers of the year; two students; and five district administrators—will create an innovation plan that outlines which specific education code exemptions RRISD is seeking.
In August the appointed committee will likely present the local innovation plan to RRISD’s elected district-level committee, which also includes classroom teachers; school leaders, including Gesch; a business representative; and a parent of a RRISD student.
By September or October, RRISD trustees could vote on the final innovation plan, Gesch said. If RRISD’s district-level committee and its board of trustees approve the innovation plan, it would last five years and require annual updates.
Texas school districts may pursue a District of Innovation, or DOI, designation, which would allow certain exemptions from the Texas Education Code. The process toward becoming a DOI starts with community input.[/caption]
Teacher contract concerns
Chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code governs teacher contracts and mandates that teachers must hold a certificate issued by the State Board for Educator Certification.
But a DOI could choose to exempt itself from teacher contracts and benefits, similar to public charter schools.
“That would mean that teachers would be at-will employees,” said Lonnie Hollingsworth, general counsel for Austin-based nonprofit Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “The district could basically let them go for any reason at all at any time.”
Hollingsworth said TCTA, which represents 50,000 educators throughout the state, opposed HB 1842 because DOI designation could infringe on the rights of both teachers and parents, such as a teacher removing a disruptive student from the classroom or a parent receiving notice of a student’s unsatisfactory grades.
He said paid time for lesson planning and preparation could also be taken from teachers in a DOI.
In fairness, Hollingsworth said many districts have expressed no interest in altering the school start date or exempting from the teacher appraisal system, which beginning in school year 2017-18 will rate teachers based in part on student performance.
TCTA opposes the new teacher appraisal system but argued it should be addressed statewide rather than district by district through the DOI designation, Hollingsworth said. TCTA has sued the commissioner of education in an attempt to change the new teacher appraisal system, he said.
The DOI process also gives more authority to district-level committees, Hollingsworth said.
“In the past, this committee has been pretty much a paper tiger,” he said. “All of the sudden this committee … becomes a huge safeguard to avoid potential losses in rights and benefits.”
Hollingsworth said it is important for classroom teachers to get involved in the DOI process and ensure the district-level committee is an elected body that includes teacher representatives.
Gesch and Corey Ryan, RRISD executive director of communications and community relations, said RRISD is not interested in skirting the teacher certification requirement on core subjects.
“We need certified teachers. We need teacher contracts in 99 percent of instances,” Ryan said. “We’re working very carefully to be clear that our scope is limited.”
RRISD is interested in hiring uncertified educators to teach world language classes—a field in which teachers are hard to find—and in some technical education classes in which an industry professional with real-world experience would be more valuable than a certified educator with no experience in the field, Ryan said.
Schools seek experts
Similar to RRISD, Brandy Baker, HISD assistant superintendent for school support, said DOI status could help the district bring industry professionals into the classroom.
Baker presented an overview of the DOI process to the HISD school board May 12, after which the board resolved to initiate the process.
After a public hearing on whether to pursue DOI designation, during which Baker said only two members of the public spoke, the board unanimously approved the appointment of an innovation plan committee June 9. The committee will include teachers and parents, she said.
Although the appointed innovation plan committee will recommend which specific exemptions HISD is seeking through the DOI process, Baker said the exemptions would likely help the district further its college- and career-readiness programs. In some cases, it may be in the district’s best interest to hire industry professionals instead of certified educators, she said.
Baker said the school board supports seeking DOI status, but it has made it clear it does not want the designation to negatively affect current faculty and staff.
“We support the Texas Education Code. We see value in it,” she said.
Baker said she expects a proposed innovation plan to come before the school board for a vote in December. PfISD Communications Officer Steve Scheffler said his district is also looking into the DOI process, but has not yet voted to develop a local innovation plan.
Charter schools’ flexibility
David Dunn, executive director of Austin-based Texas Charter Schools Association, said exemption from the Texas Education Code allows charter schools in Texas many freedoms not afforded to ISDs.
Because charter schools are not bound by state contract provisions, faculty and administrators are largely at-will employees, which enables more hiring freedom and the ability to let go of faculty members who fail to meet the needs of students, Dunn said.
Many teachers in charter schools enjoy the flexibility of not having a contract, even though the pay is less than many public school teachers receive, he said. Charter school teachers are also free to adjust the curriculum as needed to ensure students are learning the material, he said.
“I don’t think it’s had a negative impact on teacher quality at all; quite the opposite actually,” Dunn said.
Dunn also said lack of state regulations allows charter schools to be flexible with the school calendar, whether it means aligning early college high school students with a local community college’s schedule or offering night classes to students who must work to support their families.
“We’ve got a number of charter schools focused on kids who’ve dropped out,” Dunn said.
Dunn said the association supports the DOI designation because it could improve outcomes for students.
Both charter schools and ISDs receive state funds based on the average daily attendance of students, but charter schools in Texas do not receive funds from local tax revenue or state facilities funding.
If public schools no longer have to adhere to state regulations, charter schools should be eligible for the same state funding DOI schools receive, Dunn said.