The Houston ISD school year is likely to begin earlier and last longer in 2024 after an advisory committee on Tuesday evening advanced a plan opting the district out of several state education laws.
The plan would let HISD start the school year sooner in August, hold up to 180 days of class, adopt a new teacher evaluation system and hire uncertified high school instructors without seeking state waivers, among other changes.
In a 41-to-11 vote from its District Advisory Committee, which is required by law to sign off on the plan, HISD took the second-to-last step to become a so-called “District of Innovation,” a designation the vast majority of Texas districts already share. The process, ushered by new Superintendent Mike Miles, began in early September and is scheduled to move to HISD’s state-appointed school board for a final vote in mid-December.
“Roughly 95 percent of districts in the state (have received District of Innovation status). We believe HISD students also deserve the flexibility that is allowed by a (District of Innovation) plan,” said Edgardo Colon, an attorney and University of Houston-Downtown lecturer who helped create the proposal.
The plan, which includes requests for seven exemptions from state law, is a scaled-back version of a draft HISD released earlier this month. The final document tweaked the guidelines for implementing certain provisions and removed others entirely after members of the advisory committee voiced concerns during a Nov. 8 meeting.
The three abandoned exemptions would have sought to increase class size limits for kindergarten through fourth grade, scrap a requirement that families be notified if their children are taught by an uncertified teacher, and allow schools to eliminate their behavior coordinator position. Because of their removal from the plan, HISD will continue to be beholden to those state laws.
“You spoke and we listened and we removed three of the exemptions,” Lauren Heller Fontaine, an HISD mother who helped craft the proposal, told the advisory committee Tuesday evening in a presentation before the vote.
Despite the changes, the plan remains controversial. Several dozen community members spoke during public comment, the majority urging committee members to vote against the proposal.
Catherine Valdez, a parent at HISD’s Coop Elementary School, said she was concerned about the provision allowing uncertified teachers to be hired at the high school level without waivers.
“What good is it to hire an uncertified teacher? That will just lower standards,” Valdez said. “We wouldn’t want to see a doctor that didn’t have a Ph.D. or an M.D.”
An earlier draft of the District of Innovation proposal also had sought to allow the hiring of non-licensed instructors in most elementary and middle school grades, but the final proposal walked back language in its “implementation guidance” section to specify such hires only would be made at the high school level.
The implementation guidance in the final proposal also sets a 180-day maximum for next school year, allows for up to 185 days by 2025-26, and pushes back the implementation of a new, HISD-specific teacher evaluation system to 2025-26 at the earliest. Miles previously tried to implement his own evaluation tool, but ran into legal troubles in late August.
The recommendations for implementation are not legally binding, Miles has acknowledged, leading some community members to worry the expressed parameters may not be followed. Miles has said he will stick to the plan, even if “in theory” HISD could break from the guidelines without penalty.
“I’m from the old days where if you make a handshake, that’s a promise and you do it,” Miles told the advisory committee last week in a video of the meeting obtained by the Houston Landing.
HISD previously sought District of Innovation status several years ago, but the District Advisory Committee shot down the plan in 2021. In September, Miles added appointees to the committee and board members replaced committee members who were put in place by the now-powerless elected trustees — shifting the balance of power in favor of the new administration’s plans.
If HISD’s board approves the District of Innovation plan in December by a two-thirds majority, its provisions will take effect immediately, according to a district spokesperson.
Any future changes to the plan that add exemptions from state law must receive approval from the District Advisory Committee and the school board.
Asher Lehrer-Small covers education for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas about Houston ISD. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.