Dallas, Highland Park, and Ector County schools recently became the latest districts to opt for the “District of Innovation” status. Districts across Texas are grabbing hold of a 2015 law that allows them wider flexibility and control of everything from the start and end dates for the school year, class size, and length of a school day, to who they can hire to teach.
Highland Park ISD’s board of trustees voted a District of Innovation plan in March. Ector County ISD passed its plan in April.
The District of Innovation concept was provided for in 2015 when the state legislature passed House Bill 1842, which allows districts some flexibility in seeking exemptions to state education code on various facets of curriculum, governance, accountability, and finance.
To begin the journey, a board adopts a resolution to examine the issue, then holds public hearings and appoints a committee to develop the district’s plan.
Proponents point to the local control, and to the opportunity for the same flexibility charter schools have. Opponents frequently say there is the potential for a slippery slope scenario that would lead to hiring unqualified teachers.
There is also a fair amount of fret about what teacher contracts would look like on a District of Innovation landscape, but so far districts that have passed plans have insisted teacher contracts would not be affected.
The Ector County ISD school board approved their district’s plan 6-0, with one board member abstaining. The plan seeks exemptions for changing the start date, flexibility in certification requirements for career and technology education teachers, and not including student performance data in teacher and administration appraisals for the current school year.
Highland Park’s plan sought exemptions for flexibility in picking start dates, class sizes in primary grades, teacher certifications and giving students credits by examination without prior instruction.
Dallas ISD trustees voted Thursday night to adopt a plan that had been crafted over the past few months by a committee of community members, teachers, administrators, and parents. The district’s District of Innovation plan only asks for two exemptions — an earlier start date and flexibility in hiring teachers for its dual-credit, career and technical and early college courses.
The vote required a supermajority of six of the nine trustees voting in favor. Audrey Pinkerton, Joyce Foreman, and Bernadette Nutall voted against the measure, and after staying silent throughout the board debate, Lew Blackburn was the vote that provided the supermajority.
Prior to the vote, a steady stream of people — mostly teachers, parents, and representatives of businesses who have partnered with the district at various collegiate prep academies spoke out in favor of the flexibility becoming a District of Innovation would allow.
Several pointed out that the start time would not only align the district with its competition — charter schools — but also would align it with one of it’s most important partners – the Dallas County Community College District.
Colleges currently start roughly a week before Dallas ISD does, which means that the first semester of coursework in some classes must be truncated. Current law states that districts cannot start school earlier than the fourth Monday in August unless they have applied for an exemption as part of their District of Innovation plan.
“A week might not sound like a great deal of time,” Karen Ezell, the executive director of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship said. “Where do you cut content?”
“I believe our students are capable and can be successful, but only if we level the playing field,” Ezell added.
Thom Chesney, president of DCCCD’s Brookhaven College, spoke out in favor as well. “The District of Innovation’s flexible start date will allow our two districts calendars to align,” he said, adding that providing flexibility in teacher certifications can guarantee there are enough dually accredited teachers to teach.
Chesney added that students could learn accounting from a licensed CPA, for instance.
Parents speaking in favor of the District of Innovation status pointed out that the district should be able to hire professors from DCCCD, SMU, and other local colleges, as well as experienced tradesmen and healthcare professionals.
“The construction industry, in particular, is in desperate need of skilled workers,” Ryan Windham of Cummings Electrical said told the board, explaining that allowing the district to flesh out programs with experienced experts would be invaluable.
Rachel Sackett of Southland Holdings, one of the district’s collegiate prep partners, agreed. “We have work we don’t have workers for,” she said.
Mita Havlick, who chaired the District of Innovation committee charged with creating the plan adopted Thursday, explained that it wasn’t a backdoor attempt at home-rule, either.
“It’s asking for flexibility,” she said. “The scope is limited, but the impact is huge.”
“What-ifs and conspiracy theories are not a reason to vote no,” she added and pointed out that principals still have the ability to turn away applicants that aren’t a good fit, and aren’t qualified to teach a subject.
“Today certified teachers get turned away for not being a good fit,” she said. “So it will happen to non-certified instructors, too.”
“DOI is not home rule — I fought against home rule,” community member Edward Turner said. “There is a war between public schools and charter schools every year. This particular DOI went through a rigorous process.”
“All we are doing here is giving ourselves an option,” trustee Dustin Marshall said while the board debated, adding that the district wasn’t required to move the start date or hire teachers that weren’t certified even if they passed the plan.
“But wouldn’t it be great if we wanted to hire a master electrician or a community college professor, and we could?” he said. “When you look at options in economics, there’s a value to the option.”
“One of the biggest issues with this board is that we rush through too many things,” Foreman said. “Sometimes this board makes some bonehead decisions by not having all the information.”
Discussion regarding the District of Innovation plan began in September, and the committee worked for five months to craft it. District of Innovation plans are good for five years.
Pinkerton said she opposed the plan because she felt the district already had options, including a teaching permit that allows the district to hire any teacher with a bachelor’s degree after going through a bureaucratic process that includes sending the hire to Austin for Texas Education Agency approval.
“My big concern is there are no minimum standards,” Pinkerton said.
As an example, Dallas ISD deputy superintendent Israel Cordero said a vacancy in a diesel mechanics class at one high school took almost three years to fill because many qualified professionals balked at the expense and time it took to become certified.
“It would’ve been a lot easier to have been onboarded if there had been some flexibility,” Cordero said.
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that the district needed the flexibility — and even went as far as to agree to only use the hiring provisions when all other options had been exhausted.
He also said that the time constraints of the current permitting options for non-certified teachers also takes more time. “If we had this other tool in our toolkit, we could hire that person and they could start teaching, instead of us waiting for two or three months to hear if that person could work,” he said.
“This demand is going to grow,” Hinojosa said of the need for dual-credit and early college instructors.
Close to 400 districts have adopted District of Innovation plans, he added.
Board president Dan Micciche said that failing to pass the plan would actually make the district an outlier, and that a no vote would mean that the board was saying they’re OK with having the TEA review every non-certified hire.
“I think we want more independence than that,” he said, adding that when he goes to various school board governance meetings, trustees in other districts say they passed their plans without controversy.
“I respect the fact that people have different points of view on this, but for me, it’s a very easy decision,” Micciche said.
The Texas Association of School Boards maintains a list of schools who have District of Innovation plans and their exemptions.