Houston ISD released a draft plan Monday evening to potentially exempt itself from 10 state laws, including teacher certification requirements, class size limits and rules about the length of the school year.

If the plan is approved, HISD would be able to begin the school year as early as the first Monday in August and extend the academic calendar up to 185 days. The district also would be able to hire uncertified teachers without seeking a waiver from the state, raise the number of elementary students allowed per teacher and develop its own teacher evaluation system.

Miles previously acknowledged the changes likely will result in teachers working a longer year. Most HISD teachers currently work 187 days per school year, with 15 days devoted to preparing for the start of classes and mid-year training. 

The changes are allowed under “District of Innovation” status, which HISD began seeking in September. The vast majority of Texas school districts have received the designation, with most allowing themselves to extend the school year and avoid teacher certification laws, according to the Texas Education Agency. About half of Texas districts chose to opt out of the state’s class size limits.

New Superintendent Mike Miles previously acknowledged the changes likely will result in teachers working a longer year. Most HISD teachers currently work 187 days per school year, with 15 days devoted to preparing for the start of classes and mid-year training. 

Under a longer academic calendar, HISD will offer a “competitive compensation package for instructional staff,” the document released Monday states. What that dollar figure may look like — and how it could impact HISD’s bottom line — remains unclear. The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

HISD’s District of Innovation plan has been highly anticipated as community members have awaited information about what specific exemptions the district would pursue through the process. Miles previously indicated HISD would seek to extend the school year, but remained tight-lipped about what other changes the district may pursue.

The draft document was created by a seven-member committee that includes HISD board member Janette Garza-Lindner, HISD Deputy Chief of Staff Jessica Morffi and several community members. On Wednesday, members of a group called the District Advisory Committee will meet and give feedback on the plan. By Friday, HISD expects to finalize the plan and notify the TEA of its intent to seek the exemptions.

HISD sought District of Innovation status in 2020, but the District Advisory Committee, which is responsible for voting on the plan, shot it down nearly a year into the process. In September, Miles and the new school board appointed dozens of members to the committee, tipping the balance of power such that the proposal this time is likely to pass.

Bradley Wray is a physical education teacher at Deady Middle School and a member of the District Advisory Committee. He worries the changes outlined in Tuesday’s plan could drive away teachers, who already are leaving HISD in higher-than-usual numbers, he said.

“A lot of (school staff) rely on those days to work second jobs during the summer. I value those days to spend time with my family,” Wray said. “The extra days, I think, is going to drive away a lot of teachers, which we already see happening. This will be the final nail for some teachers.”

As a parent, Wray also said he was concerned with exemptions allowing uncertified teachers in the classroom and waiving the requirement that the district notify families whose children are taught by an unlicensed teacher.

Each year, dozens of HISD classrooms are led by uncredentialed educators, even without the explicit allowance to do so in a District of Innovation plan. This year, the district applied for a state waiver on certification requirements. Research does not show a clear link between holding a certification and teacher effectiveness.

Another proposed change, exempting HISD from the state’s teacher evaluation process, would clear a path for the district to use its own tool to rate its teachers. Miles attempted to implement his own evaluation tool this year, but was blocked by a judge in response to a union lawsuit. Classroom evaluations factor heavily into the pay-for-performance strategy Miles has said he plans to roll out in upcoming years.

The full list of exemptions from state law outlined in the Tuesday draft document include:

  • Starting the school year earlier and allowing it to extend to as many as 185 days
  • Allowing HISD to develop a teacher evaluation system separate from the state’s system
  • Allowing HISD to train teachers in regional or district wide events, rather than campus-by-campus trainings
  • Waiving the requirement that all teachers be certified to teach their grade and subject
  • Waiving the requirement that families be notified if their child’s instructor does not hold a certification
  • Scrapping the rule that each campus must have a designated staff member devoted to student discipline
  • Allow principals the ability not withhold grades for students in good academic standing who miss over 10 percent of school days
  • Changing the maximum students per classroom in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade from 22 to 20 in pre-k, 25 in kindergarten and first grades and 28 in second through fourth grades
  • Raising the number of excused absences students may have for college visits
  • Lifting mandatory punishments for vaping

The public will have a chance to weigh in on the District of Innovation plan during a Nov. 14 meeting. The HISD board is scheduled to vote and possibly grant final approval Dec. 14.

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 asher@houstonlanding.org.

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...