Last Monday, I received an email from Texas AFT (Texas American Federation of Teachers). The subject line read, “RED ALERT – District of Innovation.” The article within the email, written by Texas AFT Secretary Treasurer Ray McMurrey October 19, 2016, was titled “Districts of Innovation threaten safeguards for a quality education.” As I read on, these words hit me especially hard: The word innovation has been hijacked, since it should have been reserved for what’s really needed in public education—the freedom to stop teaching to the test and to allow for more creative means of accountability. (Alas, exempting oneself from required test-driven accountability standards is not allowed under the law.)

I remember hearing something about the District of Innovation designation some time ago, but I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention. That changed when I received this email, sent out by the McAllen chapter of AFT. After all, that could only mean one thing, and my suspicions were on point. McAllen ISD is moving toward a DOI designation.

I pulled up the Monday, January 30, MISD board minutes. I was unable to attend, so I had not looked closely at the agenda items. Sure enough, item 6 on the agenda read, “PUBLIC HEARING FOR DISTRICT OF INNOVATION. The agenda indicated that Dr. Silvia Ibarra, assistant superintendent (for) instructional services, submitted the item and Superintendent Dr. Jose Gonzalez was to present it.

According to a second email from McAllen AFT, the board voted unanimously (Trustee John Ball was absent) to initiate the process and then again to appoint a committee to create the ‘innovation’ plan.

I had flashbacks to the High School Redesign Project (HSRP) McAllen ISD almost bought into in 2007 until several teachers began researching the project after red flags nearly knocked us over. What we discovered was frightening, and, thankfully, it was stopped in its tracks, but not before some of us suffered—and I do mean suffered—retaliation at the campus level (not by Central Office administrators) for fighting for our students.

Then I thought of the district’s attempt to team up with a few districts outside the Valley to apply for one of President Obama’s Race to the Top grants. Again, our district was saved when the proposal was not accepted. Thank goodness, since that program has been deemed a “dismal failure” and “The Race to the Top Flop,” among other things.

So here we are again--another program with a catchy name and a lot of questions. Let me answer a few of them for you:

1. The District of Innovation (DOI) designation is part of HB1842, passed during the 2015 legislative session.

2. According to a May, 2015, story in the American-Statesman by Kiah Collier (“Texas Senate quietly revives contentious education proposals”), Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) authored this part of the bill and tacked it on “after midnight” the day of the senate vote.

3. According to the Texas Education Agency website, 85 Texas school districts have informed them that they have developed DOI plans. (More on the strange thing about that next week.) TEA’s site also indicates there are over 1,000 school districts in the state. If a DOI designation is so “innovative,” why have so few districts chosen to jump on board?

4. What does a DOI designation allow a Texas school district to do? I will have more on this next week, but here are just a few things: a) exceed the 22-1 student-to-teacher cap for grades K-4 without notifying parents; b) hire teachers who are not certified and principals with no education background; c) choose the school start date rather than adhere to current state law that requires districts to start no earlier than the fourth Monday in August; d) do away with teacher contracts; e) deny educators individual planning time and duty-free lunch. As I said, these are just a few of the Texas Education Code waivers districts can choose when they become a DOI.

Is it just me, or is “innovation” missing in all of this? There is more—much more—to come next week. In the meantime, McAllen, ask questions now to decide if you do or do not want McAllen ISD to be a DOI. One overriding question remains: Why hasn’t the district done one of their advertising blitzes to employees and the community about moving forward to become a DOI? 

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.