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By W. Gardner Selby September 12, 2017

Greg Abbott keeps promise to let schools opt out of mandates

If you noticed a Texas kid going to school well before the end of August this year, then you indirectly detected a disputed change in law--and progress on a Greg Abbott campaign promise we're evaluating on the PolitiFact Texas Abbott-O-Meter.

Statewide, the Texas Education Agency told legislators in June, districts serving more than half the state's 5.3 million pupils entered the 2017-18 school year having exempted themselves from the mandate--section 25.0811 of the state education code--forbidding districts from starting classes until the fourth Monday of August.

Mike Morath, the state education commissioner, reminded lawmakers that House Bill 1842, which Abbott signed into law in June 2015, created and allowed a district to designate itself a District of Innovation hence allowed to exempt itself from certain education laws by creating a local innovation plan. Morath further noted that the act requires the agency to notify lawmakers of each provision from which districts enrolling a majority of students are exempt.

Let's recap Abbott's promise about school mandates before spelling out what he and the Republican-led Legislature agreed on in 2015.

Abbott's promise

Abbott, accepting his party's 2014 gubernatorial nomination, told Republican Party of Texas convention delegates that his campaign's Bicentennial Blueprint, a compendium of Abbott goals, "returns genuine local control to schools by allowing schools to opt out of mandates from Austin, Texas. Teachers and parents know far better how to educate our children than do a bunch of bureaucrats in Austin or Washington, D.C."

That blueprint, issued by Abbott's campaign in 2013, spells out numerous vows including his pitch to establish "local control by giving school districts operational flexibility over their schools."

In the tome, Abbott said "decision-making in Austin must be reduced. School districts should be freed from many state regulations governing their day-to-day operations in exchange for empowering parents with useful information."

Abbott called next for giving districts the option of exempting themselves from mandates governing day-to-day operations such as calendars and schedules; facilities management; transportation; procurement; and food and beverage services. "With this new freedom," Abbott wrote, "districts may devise individualized operational plans" responsive to local needs while the state, he said, still would gauge educational outcomes.

Senate-originated legislation

Abbott revisited that call in his February 2015 State-of-the-State address to legislators after showing members, from his perch on the Texas House speaker's rostrum, a softback book containing every state education law. Turning the book sideways to showcase its thickness, Abbott shook his head, saying: "It is absurd to micromanage educators with all of these laws. Let's cut those laws down to size by allowing school districts to opt out of parts of the education code so they can design an education plan that best fits their community needs."

In March 2015, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, filed Senate Bill 1241; the version approved by the Senate that May was later folded into other school legislation approved by the House and Senate and signed into law by Abbott.

Taylor's plan authorizes districts rated "acceptable" or better by the state to submit five-year "district of innovation" plans to the state specifying intended innovations related to curriculum, instructional methods, community participation, campus governance or parental involvement; modified school days or years; adjustments to funding; adoption of additional accountability measures; or other chosen innovations--with the plans also specifying the exemptions sought from state laws.

According to an Association of Texas Professional Educators backgrounder on Taylor's legislation, lawmakers toward the end of the 2015 session agreed on final language that left out an initial requirement of Taylor's plan that gave final say on each innovation plan to the state education commissioner.

Many districts subsequently adopted plans--and a good number of them include an opt-out from the law requiring districts to start student instruction on the fourth Monday in August.

As of August 2017, according to a Texas Education Agency website, 612 districts--about half--had filed DOI plans. Participants included the Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso districts--each of whom declared intentions to call students back to school in advance of the fourth Monday in August. The El Paso district elaborated in its plan: "Flexibility to begin instruction earlier in the calendar year will enable the district to improve active learning by balancing the amount of instructional time in the semesters, which will allow teachers to better pace and deliver instruction before and after the winter break."

Wariness from teacher organizations

Advocates for teachers remain wary.

To our inquiry, Lonnie Hollingsworth of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, among groups to oppose the DOI element, called the result "a back-door way to push deregulation efforts that had failed in the previous several sessions." By email, Hollingsworth also said: "I don't know how much Gov. Abbott had to do with this bill, but it does allow districts to exempt themselves from just about any law that does not apply to open-enrollment charter schools."

Hollingsworth and Monty Exter of the ATPE each expressed concern that district plans would focus on exempting elementary schools from class-size ratios set into state law in the 1980s, also waiving the statutory requirement that parents in any ballooning classes be notified.

Exter said by email that the association also has noticed many plans exempting districts from the law requiring schools to hire certified teachers, in particular for career and technology classes. "What effect will this have on student learning?" Exter wrote. "It's still too soon to know."

Hollingsworth wrote: "Our main criticism of these plans is that there is no true innovation going on. It remains to be seen how much harm will be done as these district eliminate important legal protections for students, parents, and employees."

We rate this previously unrated Abbott vow a gubernatorial Promise Kept.

Promise Kept — The original promise is mostly or completely fulfilled.

Our Sources

Document, letter from Mike Morath, Texas education commissioner, to members of Texas Senate and House, June 9, 2017 (received by email from DeEtta Culbertson, xx, Texas Education Agency, Aug. 23, 2017)

Document, "Bicentennial Blueprint, Greg Abbott's Working Texans Plan," Greg Abbott campaign, Oct. 28, 2013

YouTube video of Gov. Greg Abbott's State-of-the-State address to 2015 Legislature, the Texas Tribune, Feb. 17, 2015

Education legislation authorizing districts of innovation, 2015 Texas Legislature, Senate Bill 1241 as approved by the Texas Senate, May 11, 2015; House Bill 1842, as approved by the Texas House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, June 19, 2015, Texas Legislative Council (accessed Aug. 23-24, 2017)

News stories, Austin American-Statesman, "Texas Senate quietly revives contentious education proposals," May 27, 2015; "Session's public education outcome leaves all sides disappointed," June 5, 2015

Website, "Districts of Innovation," Texas Education Agency, undated (accessed Aug. 24, 2017)

Web page, "Innovation Districts Resource Page," Association of Texas Professional Educators (accessed Aug. 25, 2017)

Emails, Lonnie Hollingsworth, general counsel, Texas Classroom Teachers Association, Aug. 25, 2017

Emails, Monty Exter, lobbyist, Association of Texas Professional Educators, Aug. 25, 2017

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