Texas school districts seeking a variety of state exemptions

NWA-2017-01-31-1In the two years since Texas lawmakers created the district of innovation, or DOI, system that allows school districts to exempt themselves from portions of the Texas Education Code, more than 60 districts have approved DOI plans, including several in the Austin area.

Together, those DOI plans identify more than 50 sections of the state’s education code as targets for exemption, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis.

The exemption most sought by DOI districts involves a section of the code that mandates the first day of classroom instruction each school year, which cannot begin before the fourth Monday in August. Districts also sought exemption from laws that require teachers to hold appropriate certification, enforce class-size limits and provide 180 days of classroom instruction each school year, according to the analysis.

DOI districts and supporters say the system offers operating flexibility and gives public school districts capabilities that were previously only available to charter schools.

For example, Round Rock ISD’s board of trustees approved a DOI plan in October that included an exemption from certain teacher certifications with the goal to make it easier for the district to hire skilled teachers in areas where certified instructors are limited, including dual-language courses and career and technical education classes.

However, critics such the Texas State Teachers Association worry the power granted to school districts through the DOI system might motivate districts to cut costs rather than improve educational opportunities for students.

“There are a lot of people out there that know their subject matter up and down but don’t know how to teach it [and] don’t know how to transfer their knowledge to kids,” said TSTA spokesperson Clay Robison, regarding exemptions from teacher certification statutes.

TSTA, an Austin-based education union affiliated with the National Education Association, plans to lobby for DOI reform during the 85th legislative session. Robison said TSTA does not oppose the general idea behind the DOI plan, but it does want stricter state control over what school districts are allowed to do.

In recent months, several Austin-area school districts approved DOI plans or announced intent to do so. According to the law, a school district must develop a local innovation plan after soliciting public input and receiving approval from an elected district-level committee and its school board.

Austin ISD trustees voted in November to begin developing a DOI plan, which is still in progress. Georgetown ISD is going through the same process after its school board voted last summer to pursue DOI designation.

Lake Travis ISD and Eanes ISD both became DOI districts after approval by their boards of trustees in December.

For RRISD, its decision to become a DOI district drew ire from the TSTA, which filed a formal complaint in November. The TSTA wants the district to nullify its DOI status and argues the district’s DOI development process did not involve enough teachers and failed to meet requirements set by state law.

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The complaint has not been resolved, but Corey Ryan, RRISD’s executive director of communications and community relations, said in an email in December that the district continues to “work with TSTA and our teachers to come to a resolution that is in the best interest of students, teachers and our families.”

The 85th Texas Legislature is expected to tackle several issues in the public education arena, and lawmakers have filed several bills regarding the state’s DOI system. Three DOI-related measures were introduced ahead of the Legislature’s Jan. 10 start by state
Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Socorro.

Gonzalez’s bills include proposals that would require DOI districts exempting themselves from class-size mandates to provide written notification to parents and guardians, restrict exemptions involving student disciplinary requirements, and allow the state to revoke DOI status from school districts that do not meet performance or financial accountability standards.

Some bills filed in advance of the start of the 2017 session relate to education issues that fall within the scope of the state’s DOI system, including one called the School Calendar Choice Act, which would repeal the state’s uniform school start date—the section of the Texas Education Code most commonly exempted by DOI districts.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, noted the current start date restriction causes school districts’ fall semesters to be shorter than their spring semesters.

“It is absurd that entrenched special interest groups have forced our local districts to deal with the challenges presented by unbalanced semesters,” Taylor said in a news release. “After numerous meetings with local parents, school administrators and school boards, it is clear that allowing schools the flexibility to adjust their calendar is a common-sense solution that would yield meaningful results.”