Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Editorial: Designation as 'District of Innovation' must not be allowed to erode education

June 6, 2017 at 11:10 p.m.

With a name like "District of Innovation," it must be good. Right?

Maybe not.

It appears we must look beyond the impressive title being sought by several area school districts, because while innovation often is part of the equation, it appears the trend also could be driven by a simple desire to cut costs — and that could be reducing the quality of education being delivered to East Texas students.

More than a dozen Longview-area districts have pursued the designation, which allows them to opt out of various standards such as obligations to seek waivers for larger class sizes or teacher certifications.

According to the 2015 law that created the concept, the goal of Districts of Innovation is to let public schools form their own specialized programs, as an open enrollment charter school might. The shift usually is portrayed by districts as freeing them from "burdensome" regulations, despite the fact other Texas public school districts are managing to comply with the rules.

Under the designation, districts can exempt themselves from rules regarding school calendars, teacher certification, classroom instructional time, class size and teacher contracts.

But those are areas that have been detailed in the state education code for a reason, said Rob D'Amico, spokesman for the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

"These are the sort of things we consider quality safeguards," he told our Meredith Shamburger for a story in Sunday's editions of the News-Journal.

So let us be honest about this: If a science class is being taught by a teacher without proper science certification, the students probably won't learn as much as they would from a fully certified teacher. If a class size exceeds the 22-1 student-teacher ratio state officials have determined is optimum, the students probably won't learn as much as they would otherwise.

Taxpayers also should realize that when school districts apply for waivers from those requirements, they are usually granted, anyway. It isn't necessary to become a so-called District of Innovation to escape them.

But it sure sounds good.

Granted, the Legislature is not providing more money to public schools. And while taxpayers are reluctant to see their tax rates go up, they also expect their children to be educated properly.

The bottom line is accountability. Districts that make this change to be declared a District of Innovation should show taxpayers that graduation rates and scores on standardized tests are not suffering. They also should be able to show other benchmarks are not eroded, like the number of seniors getting academic scholarships for study at the college level.

But more and more districts are taking advantage of this option, and there is no state approval process or method of reviewing their plans or results.

That should change, before the exception becomes the rule. Public education should not decline under the promise of innovation.



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