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Why Are Central Texas Schools Interested in 'Districts of Innovation'?

Jon Shapley for KUT News
At least four Central Texas school districts are thinking of becoming Districts of Innovation, which exempts districts from some state regulations.

Public school districts in Texas are required to follow a lot of state rules, but anew state law allows those districts to receive exemptions from various regulations. It’s called a district of innovation plan and at least four Central Texas school districts are developing plans. 

The innovation districts would be able to exempt themselves from laws like class size ratios, the school year start date, student discipline rules, teacher contracts and teacher certifications. The new program gives school boards the power to make these decisions without state approval — as long as the district is academically successful. At an Austin School Board Meeting this week, trustees approved a resolution to explore a possible innovation district plan. 

“We don’t have the same autonomies that other institutions do," Superintendent Paul Cruz told the Austin School Board. "I think the question will be called and I want to be among those school districts that says, ‘Yes, I want in on this.’ I, at least, want us to study it.”

AISD’s study will include appointing a committee of district employees, parents and community members to develop an innovation district proposal. School boards can choose specific exemptions, or say they want the ability to be exempted from all possible regulations under the law. They must hold multiple public meetings when they develop an innovation plan, but the school board has final say. 

“It’s not all about just opting out of the education code," said Joy Baskin with theTexas Association of School Boards, which supports the law. "It’s really about creating a vision for the school district to move forward.”

School districts can’t be exempt from any federal laws and they can’t be exempt from major education statutes, like curriculum and graduation requirements, state tests, offering bilingual and special education classes, or open meetings laws. AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz says he constantly fields questions about why schools have to follow certain procedures — even if they don’t work.

“Over time I heard people say 'Why do we do that? Why does it have to be?' I just think we have this opportunity to say ‘Yeah, you’re right, and we shouldn’t have to do it – just cause,'" Cruz said.

This summer, Manor ISD approved a district of innovation plan. Round Rock ISD and Eanes ISD are also considering plans, too.

Ken Zarifis is the president of the local teacher’s union, Education Austin. He hopes the district of innovation law could allow AISD to implement community school models – the idea that the neighborhood school can be a community base that offers other services to students and families on campus.

“This is an opportunity to say look, 'We can innovate, but become more community oriented. How can we do that?' The districts of innovation can [do that] because it insists that you engage with the community," Zarifis said.

But, he adds, his excitement also has to do with the fact that he works with Austin public schools.

“If I’m living in a different city, I don’t look at this as the same opportunity.”

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