Changes coming — or already here — in a school district near you

Photo by Tiffany Szerpicki

As students start a new year, you may notice some changes to your local school district. If yours one of Texas’ nearly 800 “districts of innovation,” you may find that classes started earlier in August, your child’s class may be a little larger, your child’s teacher may not be certified, or student pick-up times may have changed. These small changes are part of a quiet but dramatic shift towards deregulation of schools across Texas.

In 2015, under House Bill 1842, Texas amended its state education laws to allow school districts to become districts of innovation — traditional public school districts with levels of flexibility and autonomy similar to those allowed in open-enrollment charter schools. Districts of innovation may opt out of certain state laws and regulations related to school start and end dates, class sizes, teacher certification, student discipline, minimum length of the school day and open bidding on district contracts, just to name a few. Interestingly, districts may also exempt themselves from notification: Thus, not only can a district of innovation opt to hire uncertified teachers or increase their class sizes, they may also elect not to notify parents of these decisions.

Because a school district does not need approval from voters to become a district of innovation, many parents and residents may not even be aware when these changes are adopted. The innovation option is open to any district that has been rated as “academically acceptable” by the Texas Education Agency, if two thirds of its board of trustees approves. Districts must develop plans detailing their chosen areas of exemption and notify TEA; however, the state does not approve or deny districts’ plans.

Facilitated by this streamlined process, the proliferation of districts of innovation has been nothing short of staggering. In the three years since the law was passed, 789 of Texas’ 1,025 traditional public districts have become innovation districts. According to our calculations, there are now more than 10 times as many Texas students enrolled in these as in charter districts. While researchers, policymakers and the public have been vigorously debating the costs and benefits of charter schools for the past three decades, innovation districts have arrived on the scene with comparatively little fanfare or controversy.

Echoing many of the arguments in favor of charter schools, this program rests on the idea that granting traditional public school districts the freedom to circumvent burdensome or counterproductive aspects of state law will lead to improvements in the quality and cost-effectiveness of education. For instance, allowing districts to set their own school calendars may enhance professional development opportunities and allow alignment of instruction with state accountability testing on the STAAR exams. However, from an educational perspective, there is also cause for caution regarding many of these exemptions.

As education researchers studying these issues, we examined district plans across the state and found that the single most common waiver claimed by innovation districts is to teacher certification requirements. Eliminating the requirement that teachers be certified in the area in which they teach — once a centerpiece of the federal No Child Left Behind Act but eliminated in the recent Every Student Succeeds Act — may help districts attract non-traditional teachers to fill teacher shortages in areas such as science and math. However, research by scholars such as Linda Darling-Hammond has consistently found that students achieve at higher levels when they are taught by teachers who are certified.

Likewise, hundreds of districts of innovation have elected to exempt themselves from Texas’ class-size caps, currently set at 22 students per teacher in elementary schools. Such measures may achieve cost savings for districts faced with budget shortfalls. However, there is strong evidence from randomized studies — the gold standard for scientific research — that smaller classes are associated with higher student achievement, particularly for economically disadvantaged students and students of color.

With its districts of innovation, Texas has undertaken a massive experiment in education. To be sure, allowing districts to compete on a level playing field with charters and allowing flexibility for districts that face different challenges holds the potential to improving student achievement. However, it also holds the potential to remove key safeguards designed to protect students and improve educational outcomes. It is too soon to tell whether this policy will be successful in boosting achievement, closing achievement gaps or in increasing the cost-effectiveness of schooling. If you live in a district of innovation (click here to find out if you do), we encourage you to pay close attention to the reforms that your district is adopting. Moreover, this is a critical juncture for Texans to engage in a robust public discourse about what we want from our public schools and the role that we want government to play in regulating education.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Sarah Guthery

Assistant professor, Texas A&M University-Commerce

Meredith P. Richards

Assistant professor, Southern Methodist University