HB 1842 during the 84th session of the Texas Legislature amended Chapter 12 of the state’s educational code to create Districts of Innovation. School districts become eligible for this designation if they can meet specific performance requirements. They must also follow particular procedures for adoption as outlined by the authorized statute. If awarded to the school district, then it will become exempt from certain sections of the educational code the inhibit the goals of the schools as outlined by a locally-adopted innovation plan.
All districts in Texas are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel to determine what the impact of any claimed exemption might be. The Texas Education Agency and similar organizations do not have the authority to approve the innovation plan of a school district. There are still authority aspects to TEA that allow it to investigate, intervene, and enforce activities if there is no compliance with the legal requirements where an exemption could not be claimed.
A complete list of the school districts that have already qualified for the District of Innovation title in Texas is available on the Texas Education Agency website. These are the pros and cons to consider with this designation.
List of the Pros of the District of Innovation in Texas
1. There are several state laws that districts can exempt themselves from with the designation.
When a school district earns certification as a District of Innovation, then there is an option to exempt themselves from specific state laws. The list is extensive and includes changing the school calendar, adjusting the class-size ratios, and adjustments to the disciplinary provisions that are used in the classroom. They can also waive the 90% attendance rule if wanted, determine the use of planning periods, and the teacher appraisal requirements that are part of the state’s expectations.
Because of the numerous benefits that are possible with the District of Innovation designation, about 80% of the districts in Texas have passed some sort of plan to take advantage of the legislation that was introduced in 2015.
2. It allows a school to start the year earlier.
The school calendar provision in the District of Innovation designation allows for an earlier start to the year than what is necessary under Texas law. That’s why it is the most popular plan that districts pass when they look to adopt the options that the legislation permits. Many start the year before the fourth Monday in August. When you look at the calendars of those that have the DOI label compared to the ones that do not, there is a lot of extra flexibility available that wouldn’t be otherwise.
When Corpus Christi’s school district looked at the school calendar option under the District of Innovation guidelines, an earlier start would allow for a full week off at Thanksgiving, two weeks at Christmas, and a week in the Spring. There would also be several teacher development days available during the school year.
3. Students like the extra flexibility as much as the teachers and administrative staff.
Even if there is an earlier start to the school year and other changes to life in the classroom with the District of Innovation, almost everyone who gets involved with the educational process of kids is in support of the system. Students enjoy having the extra time off during the year because there is less pressure on them to complete homework by a specific time. Principals like the idea of being able to give useful feedback to their teachers without so much riding on the line. Coaches, athletic directors, and many others see advantages to the shifts that become possible too.
4. School districts must specifically vote to opt-in to each provision.
Critics of the District of Innovation status worry that schools who decide to adopt one change, like the flexible calendar, will decide to use the other provisions allowed by the state legislature as well. It is a slippery slope argument that is instantly negated because the school council must vote on the inclusion of each provision separately. That means there is local control over the implementation of the system so that each school can pursue what they feel are the best options for their students.
5. There is an “other” category permitted in the DOI legislation.
If the school board decides to appoint an innovation plan committee, then there are five key points available for them to address.
Curriculum innovation that can include new instructional methods, community participation, parental involvement, and campus governance.
Calendar modifications that include how the school day gets structured.
Sustainable program funding and district budget provisions.
Accountability and assessment measures that exceed the requirements of federal and state law.
Any other innovation prescribed by the board.
This advantage makes it possible for local school districts to make specific changes as they pursue DOI status. The goal is to help more students find success when compared to the cookie-cutter methods offered in the past.
6. School districts have the option to rescind or amend their local innovation plan.
Under Section 12A.007, local school districts have the authority to renew, amend, or rescind their innovation plan if such an action receives the approval through a vote of the district-level committee established under the guidelines of the District of Innovation legislation. A comparable committee can serve in this status if the district is exempt from the section. The board of trustees must also approve the changes in the same manner as required for the original adoption of the plan.
7. Districts must maintain financial integrity to remain eligible.
The School Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas, simplified as FIRST, ensures that every public school in the state is held accountable for the quality of its financial practices. It also works to help them improve the actions they take when managing their money. The goal of this work is to provide the maximum allocation possible for the purposes of direct student instruction. A satisfactory rating is mandatory to be able to apply or maintain eligibility in the DOI program.
8. It allows a school district to hire qualified teachers in different subjects.
When the Prosper Independent School District started considering the idea of becoming a district of innovation, one of the primary reasons they pursued the option was because it improved their access to qualified educators. With the approval of the DOI designation, the schools could work with teachers who have multiple certifications.
“It can be difficult to find educators to teach classes in areas such as science, engineering, and math in the upper grades,” the school told the Prosper Press in 2017. “Currently, laws limit the district’s ability to hire educators to teach hard to fill positions. Flexibility in this area will assist in finding quality candidates to teach certain courses rather than canceling classes.
9. The DOI program encourages more parental involvement.
Texas laws limit the amount of parental involvement that can occur in schools without the District of Innovation plan in place. Schools that want to see families making more decisions for their children apply for this status as a way to include them more often in the processes that the schools follow. When a school grows, then the amount of involvement from the parents should as well. This process makes that option become a reality. It is an advantage that exists even though there are not necessarily any changes to the instruction or curriculum as part of the overall improvement plan.
10. It allows for bilingual teachers to be involved in the school district.
There are relatively few bilingual teachers that are available in the various school districts around Texas. The most common language spoken by students in the bilingual education programs that exist is Spanish, and there are individuals who have degrees who are fluent in multiple languages. That means the DOI designation can allow someone fluent in the foreign language to teach classes in it even if they do not have an education certificate in the field. This flexibility allows the school to continue meeting the needs of their students while staying in compliance with the educational requirements the state demands for graduation.
This advantage does not change the other components of the hiring process. All teachers must go through a complete vetting process that includes a background check before they’re able to start teaching in the classroom. There are training and monitoring requirements in place as well to ensure that the best possible candidate is identified. Then the teacher can work on their certification if it is not held already.
List of the Cons of the District of Innovation in Texas
1. Some schools are not eligible to pursue this designation.
There are more than 800 school districts in Texas that carry the District of Innovation status as of 2019. If the district academic accountability rating is at an acceptable rating, designated as having met their standard or achieving a C grade, then the eligibility requirement has been met for this program. When the preliminary or final rating is a D or an F, then that school district is considered ineligible. Any attempt to make the modifications permitted by HB 1842 would be disallowed.
Schools that receive feedback that states improvement is required for them to meet the current standard are ineligible for this designation too.
2. The board of trustees or a signed petition are the only ways to start this process.
A school district can only become an innovation district when the board of trustees passes a resolution stating as such or there is a petition from a majority of the district-level advisory committee. Local rules govern the latter, which means more than a simple majority may be necessary for DOI to become a consideration.
If the standard is met, then the board will conduct a public hearing to consider the development of an innovation plan. There must be a formal decision to pursue or decline the opportunity within 30 days of the public hearing.
3. The DOI plan can be rejected if the process is not completed correctly.
If a school district wants to pursue becoming a District of Innovation, then it must post the created plan on their website for a minimum of 30 days. The board must also notify the commissioner of their intent to adopt the plan once all of the prerequisite tasks are out of the way. The Chapter 11 district committee must then hold a public meeting to consider and approve the final version with a majority vote based on local rules. Then the Board of Trustees must adopt it with a two-thirds majority to send this process to the next level.
When any of these steps are missed or skipped for any reason, even accidentally, then the process cannot move forward until they can resolve the issue.
4. One of the allowable exemptions is educator certification.
Some school districts in Texas can struggle to find enough qualified teachers to help their students create a positive educational environment. That’s one of the reasons why the District of Innovation legislation was passed in the first place. When there isn’t a needed for educator certification in a school district, then there isn’t a guarantee of quality in the education that kids will receive in that area. It can fill classrooms with warm bodies, but this issue also makes it up to the hiring managers in each district to ensure that someone is qualified enough to create lesson plans and offer a learning environment.
5. Texas already repealed the length of school day requirements.
One of the provisions in HB 1842 was that school districts were allowed to change the structure of their school day. During the 85th legislative session, the length of school day requirements under TEC statutes were repealed. That means the requirement for 7 hours or 420 minutes no longer applied anyway. That means the districts who went through that process in the earliest stages of this idea faced various administrative expenses that are no longer necessary to create the flexibility that some districts need.
6. School districts can lose their designation.
During the 86th Legislature, there were several amendments made to the District of Innovation requirements that make it possible for schools to lose their designation if the commissioner finds that there are issues present in the district for two consecutive years. If the academic performance rating is deemed to be unacceptable or there are problems with financial accountability, then the DOI label can be revoked. There is also the option to remove this status if a school has an issue with their performance one year, and then a problem with financial issues the second year.
If the issue stays for three years and the commissioner decides to offer one more year to correct the issue, then the designation is considered lost.
7. The decisions made by the commissioner are considered final.
When a school district runs into problems with their financial accountability or academic performance, then whatever decision the commissioner makes for qualifying schools is final. If the status is revoked, then there is no appeal process available if the decision seems to be unjustified or there are extenuating circumstances that govern the situation. The only way to restore the DOI designation after it is revoked is to meet the necessary criteria and follow the processes required of the district to receive another approval in the future.
8. The exemptions offered by the DOI program could lead to unintentional results.
Critics of the DOI program have concerns that the waivers it allows will remove essential safeguards in the educational process. Certification allows students to work with qualified teachers, which is something that is important to parents as well. There is no way to know for certain whether an individual is qualified, so families are left with only an assumption to make in this regard. Since teachers are responsible for social and emotional behavior too, a lack of understanding of how kids interact with each other could worsen the classroom environment for many students.
Should Texas Schools Apply for District of Innovation Status?
The pros and cons of the District of Innovation in Texas show that there can be some benefits in the flexibility that comes from this designation. There are also several things that schools must consider in pursuit of their DOI status. They must update local policies to correspond with the new approach, articulate the problems that are being addressed, and stakeholder involvement of everyone. If there isn’t compliance with these issues or there are performance failures, then the designation becomes eligible for cancelation.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.