All 1,200+ Texas school districts are run by a locally elected school board. While districts are funded in part by state funds and must follow the Texas Education Code, the heart of Texas public schools are the communities that support neighborhood schools, and the local leaders who implement policies to create effective classrooms for teachers and students.

Existing District Autonomy Options

Since 1995, school districts have had the option to become home rule school districts through a petition, public charter drafting, and election process. A home rule district could eliminate a democratically elected school board in favor of another governing structure, including an appointed board. Home rule districts can also be freed from certain state laws.

No Texas district has elected to become a home rule district. An attempt in 2014 by Dallas ISD exposed several flaws that made the home rule process difficult to complete. Although it was debated by the legislature in 2015, no bills were passed to update or change the home rule statute.

In 2013, the 83rd Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 2. Among other reforms related to charter school authorization and oversight, SB 2 provided a new option for school autonomy by authorizing the creation of local district charters with the same freedoms as open enrollment charter schools. Created by a simple majority vote of the board of trustees, a local district charter can operate with all of the freedoms of an open enrollment charter without having to contract with an independent manager.

Significant Expansion of Autonomy & Innovation by 84th Legislature

Districts of Innovation, as created by House Bill 1842, represents the next step in public school flexibility. The new law encourages districts and charters to collaborate across multiple campuses and with institutions of higher education pursuant to a locally developed plan.

The districts of innovation created by the bill are also eligible to access the same exemptions from state law as open-enrollment charter schools. To do so, they must receive a two-thirds vote of their board of trustees and approval by the district-level decision-making committee. HB 1842 promotes greater autonomy for schools while preserving the accountability, transparency, and local control essential to the public school system.

all-districts-of-innovation
Check out the interactive map of Districts of Innovation across Texas.

Finding the right balance between state regulations promoting transparency, accountability, oversight, and appropriate interventions while allowing for local control, democratic autonomy, and independent innovation is a challenge continually faced by Texas legislators and educators.

Unproven Strategies that Remove Local Control

Framed as a “school turnaround” initiative for chronically low-performing campuses,
 one policy proposal would create a statewide entity called an Opportunity School District (OSD). An OSD (referred to as Achievement School District or ASD in other states) would allow the commissioner of education to contract with 
a new state entity in Austin to manage public school campuses with two consecutive years of unacceptable performance. The person in charge of this separate entity 
would be a private contractor, not a state employee. The entity would then hand these Improvement Required (IR) or Academically Unacceptable (AU) campuses over to private operators to manage, including for-profit charter management organizations (CMO), under contracts as long as eight years. Under this legislation, dozens of campuses could be swept from local control before the local school district even had the chance to turn things around.

Another tactic marketed as addressing school improvement is parent trigger. Parent trigger laws authorize parents to transform a school’s governance structure and staffing by obtaining petition support from a majority of parents with children currently in a low-performing school. It also would allow outside CMOs to manage Texas schools, instead of giving more authority to the commissioner and the citizens of the school district. Parent trigger’s use in California resulted in lasting community conflict rather than improved schools and sustainable local control.

Autonomy and School Choice

Texas has seen a sharp rise in the efforts made by districts and schools to provide innovative options and personalized learning environments to meet the unique needs and talents of our student body.

Whether it be implementing a blended learning technique in the classroom, creating a STEM high school, or allowing students district-wide to attend any campus, regardless of where they live, Texas schools are providing more choices to students and parents than ever before, including:

  • Open-Enrollment Policies
  • Early College High Schools
  • Magnet Schools
  • Speciality Schools
  • Open-Enrollment Charter Schools
  • District Charter Schools
  • Virtual Courses & Blended Learning
  • Special Needs Transfers
  • Parent Petition Transfers
  • Public Education Grant (PEG) Program

Current law allows districts to create local policies around choice options for students, and the sky is the limit as to what is possible. Districts like Grand Prairie ISD have revolutionized public school choice, and the students are the beneficiaries of the innovative strategies of the district and community.