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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Perry picks ex-railroad commissioner Williams to be Texas education chief

By Kate Alexander | Austin American-Statesman Monday, Aug. 27, 2012 Michael Williams, a former chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission who lost a bid for Congress in May, was named to the state's top education post Monday by Gov. Rick Perry. A GOP stalwart with close ties to Perry, Williams was appointed to the U.S. Department of Education in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush but otherwise has not been involved in education policy. He does, however, hew closely to Perry's conservative values and business-friendly policies. Williams assumes leadership of the Texas Education Agency during a time of political, legal and financial tumult. He will have to contend immediately with school finance litigation that goes to trial this fall, battles over a controversial standardized testing system, a continuing budget crunch and an in-depth review of the agency by the Legislature. A staunch conservative, Williams has long been a vocal advocate of providing public school students with vouchers to attend private school. He could serve as an important ally for lawmakers who plan to push for a voucher program in the next legislative session. Williams did not issue a statement and was not available to comment Monday. Perry also announced Monday that Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will serve as chief deputy commissioner, Williams' No. 2. Reynolds has been a deputy commissioner at the agency since 2007. "High standards and accountable public schools are essential to our state's future success, and no two people understand that better than Michael and Lizzette," Perry said in a statement. "Michael's pioneering leadership in both public and private sectors, combined with Lizzette's nearly two decades of public education experience guiding and implementing statewide reforms create a powerful and dynamic team that will fortify our state's public education system," Perry added. Robert Scott, the previous commissioner, left the agency last month after five years, considered a long spell in the politically treacherous position. A former Perry education aide, Scott had been a loyal foot soldier to the governor but fell out of step last winter by repeatedly stating that the school testing system had become a "perversion" of its original intent. School accountability and testing have long been top priorities of the state's business leaders, a key constituency for Perry. Business leaders and conservatives cheered the appointment of Williams. They said he would maintain the state's commitment to high-stakes accountability and push school districts to be more efficient with public dollars. "Michael Williams is the right person to help lead the transformation of Texas public education. His proven track record of public service, his support for educational choice and his commitment to looking out for the interests of taxpayers makes him well qualified for promoting positive change in public education," said James Golsan, education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. School officials, meanwhile, welcomed Williams to the fray. "School board members empathize with the commissioner as he takes the reins of an agency that is expected to provide vital education services in spite of significant state funding cuts," said Jackie Lain of the Texas Association of School Boards. Round Rock Superintendent Jesús Chávez said he and other district leaders hope Williams brings strong leadership to education and shows a willingness to listen to educators. "We're going to roll up our sleeves and work together with him to get things done for public education," Chávez said. Despite Williams' previous experience as assistant secretary of education for civil rights in Washington, he has not been actively involved in education policy in Texas. His primary policy expertise has centered on energy issues. The Texas Railroad Commission regulates the oil and gas industry. Williams was thrice elected statewide after being appointed to the Railroad Commission by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1998. Last year, he resigned from the Railroad Commission to join the crowded field seeking the GOP's U.S. Senate nomination but later opted to run for the U.S. House. He lost in the May primary. Known for his affability and ever-present bow tie, Williams has been a loyal Republican and a favorite among GOP activists. Perry has repeatedly named Williams to leadership positions, including the head of the Governor's Competitiveness Council and several energy-related posts. But none of those jobs has had anywhere near the profile and pressure that Texas' education commissioner has. The TEA disbursed more than $25 billion this year in state and federal money to educate about 10 percent of the public school students in the country. Williams will take charge of an agency next week that lost about one-third of its workers last year under state budget cuts and is undergoing a top-to-bottom review by the Legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission. Come January, the new commissioner will wade into a legislative session that is expected to be teeming with education controversies, including a public backlash over standardized testing, as well as a push to create a private-school voucher program. And he will be working with a slate of legislative leaders who are also new to the game. House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, lost his bid for re-election in May; Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, is retiring from her seat and had been considered a top contender for the commissioner's job. Underlying all of the challenges facing the commissioner is the largest school finance litigation in the state's history. Two-thirds of Texas school districts, which together serve about 75 percent of the public school students in the state, have claimed the state's school finance system is unconstitutional on several counts. Originally from Midland, Williams' parents were both schoolteachers. He attended the University of Southern California, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees as well as his law degree.

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