Dripping Springs district among first in Texas to get innovation tag

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016 Local

Dripping Springs High School automotive technology teacher Jason Massey knows his way around cars.

Having worked in the automotive field for 15 years, including as the owner of a business that designs and builds race cars, Massey now will teach his skills to high school students when school starts next week. Despite lacking a state teaching certificate, he was hired by the school under new rules that give Texas districts more autonomy in deciding on who can teach in the classroom, class-size ratios and a host of other matters that are usually dictated by state education officials.

A new state law gives “Districts of Innovation” freedoms similar to those that charter schools already have. Such districts will have more local control, including flexibility to decide when the school year starts and how teacher planning periods are used.

It also allows such districts to develop their own teacher appraisals, rather than relying on a new state-designed system that ties teacher evaluations to standardized test scores. Other state requirements stand, including accountability standards. While not written into the law, the state education commissioner also said districts aren’t exempt from school finance rules.

The Dripping Springs district, which has long performed well in the state ratings, is among the first in Texas to become a District of Innovation, and it will tap into some of the exemptions that offers.

“This gives you the flexibility to use common sense to meet the needs of your school district,” Dripping Springs Superintendent Bruce Gearing said.

The district has opted to develop its own employee evaluation system that better aligns with the district’s strategic plan. Gearing said the district’s evaluations won’t be directly tied to student performance, but will focus more on how teachers meet the needs of children in their classes.

Gearing said the result will be evaluations and staff development plans that better reflect the learning that needs to happen in the classroom.

“We still believe in accountability, and we believe in educating kids to the highest level possible, but we believe we can do that more effectively with more local control,” Gearing said.

Before the law, some school districts, such as Austin’s, created in-district charter schools to give more flexibility to specific campuses. Travis Heights Elementary in South Austin made the switch in 2013 to encourage innovation and to focus on a service-learning model, but it needed approval from the state.

It takes months of planning and public meetings — and a locally crafted innovation plan — for a district to receive the innovation status and its exemptions.

The Eanes, Hutto, Georgetown, Manor and Round Rock districts are now in the process of seeking innovation status, while Austin is exploring the concept.

But a state teachers group has raised concerns that some districts will use the law to “claim entitlement to blanket exemptions of all the laws that can be waived.”

The Association of Texas Professional Educators said districts seeking exemptions from all permissible provisions of the Texas Education Code could open themselves up to more liability.

“They could be waiving immunity without realizing that’s what they’re doing,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the group. He also said districts could get rid of certain parent notifications that are currently required, and teachers could be at risk of losing their contract rights and salary protections.

The group also warns that those districts will have less legal protection when they waive the state certification requirements, even for career and technology education teachers, and hire teachers as at-will employees instead of under traditional contracts. Because those teachers won’t fall under the State Board for Educator Certification, the board cannot sanction them, and they won’t have any certification to take away if they are called out for misconduct, the group warns.

“We support innovation, but we are very concerned about both unforeseen consequences and the likelihood of vital stakeholders being ill-informed about the known consequences of these actions being pursued by their local school boards,” said Gary Godsey, executive director of the professional educators association.

Gearing said he understands such concerns as having classes that are too large, and he said the district isn’t doing away with the 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio, but instead is leaving it up to the school board. In previous years, if one or two classes exceeded the ratio, the district would have to seek a state waiver. Now, the school board can make the decision, saving time.

“We’re not doing anything carte blanche,” Gearing said. “We’re not taking local control so we can ignore the intention of why those laws were put in place.”