At least four Central Texas school districts are exploring a new state law that allows them to become a "district of innovation." That designation means they can be exempt from various state regulations – just as open enrollment charter schools are. That can give schools more flexibility when it comes to hiring, class sizes and the school year start date, but not everyone is happy with the idea.
Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, compares districts of innovation to nuclear energy.
“They are potentially a very powerful tool but also have the ability to do a lot of damage when not used appropriately,” he said.
Exter says that power would be centered around local school boards. As long as the school district is academically successful, the board could decide skip out on some state regulations. Ken Zarifis of Education Austin, the local teacher’s union, says community engagement is the only way to counter a board's power.
“That shouldn’t just be some simple community meeting. But I’m afraid that’s what it might mean in some districts,” he said. “I believe in AISD, they have a genuine concern about engaging with community and employees and teachers to say what is it we want from our schools?”
But, if school boards want to amend the plan, they don’t have to get public input.
Another thing that makes Exter nervous: Innovation districts can eliminate teacher contracts and hire uncertified teachers, if they want. That’s supposed to help schools hire teachers in specialized areas where it’s hard to find a certified expert, like career and technical training courses.
“They may be really good at whatever they’re really good at, but they may have zero ability to actually transfer that knowledge,” he says, adding that when teachers lose job protection, the district begins to “regress,” not innovate.
Around 30 school districts in the state have approved district of innovation plans, so far. And another 30 are developing plans. Joy Baskin with Texas Association of School Boards says they aren’t seeing school districts using this opportunity to remove teacher contracts.
“There’s a desire among school districts to have the plans be developed from the grassroots, including by instructional staff in the district,” Baskin said. “And, if instructional staff in the districts are happy with having employment contracts...we’re not seeing a lot of innovation plans with changes to teachers’ contract rights.”
But, Exter says what really worries him is how districts of innovation have given more power to the legislature. He says the two major expenses for schools – teacher quality standards and class size limits – also serve as quality control measures. He wonders what could happen, if there’s another budget crisis at the state level.
“Now, you’ve essentially handed the legislature the ability to turn around and say to you, ‘Well we’re very sorry. We don’t have enough money, but guess what we’ve given you now? The ability to simply modify your own books from a quality control standpoint, instead of coming up with more money for you,’” he says. “So, you just deal with it by having lower quality workforce and stuffing more kids into each classroom.”
There is a safeguard in the law, in case a district's innovations lower student performance. If a school district fails state accountability standards two years in a row, the Texas Education Commissioner can revoke their plan. Fail three years in a row, and the commissioner is required to revoke it.