Gov. Rick Perry is slated to name Michael Williams the new commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, a source close to the governor said Monday.
A fixture of Texas Republican politics — and a former general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas — Williams resigned from the Railroad Commission in 2011 after serving more than a decade on the regulatory body that oversees the state’s oil and natural gas industry.
His appointment comes at a trying time for the agency that lost a third of its workforce after budget cuts last year. Amid anxiety from parents, educators, and administrators — and backlash from lawmakers — over its transition to a rigorous new assessment and accountability system, the state is facing six lawsuits over the way it funds public schools. More than half of Texas public schools failed to meet yearly benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act, but the state remains one of the handful that have yet to seek a waiver from the requirements from the federal government. The agency will also begin the Sunset Review process in October.
Though he began his career as an assistant district attorney in Midland, Williams’ most recent occupation is as a political candidate. After being one of a crowded field of candidates that made an early showing of interest in replacing Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate, he campaigned for the congressional district now held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, in the 2012 general election instead. Williams lost the Republican primary to a runoff between Wes Riddle and fellow former U.S. Senate candidate Roger Williams, who ultimately prevailed. The district includes part of western Hays County.
When Gov. George Bush named Williams to the commission in 1999, he became the first African American to hold a statewide elected position. The Midland native’s career in GOP politics began during the Ronald Reagan administration when he served as a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the Civil Rights division at the U.S. Department of Education, a legal position that is his only official previous experience in the realm of education policy.
In that regard, the governor’s appointment of Williams is a departure for the agency. His immediate predecessor Robert Scott, was a long time TEA official and advisor to Perry on education issues. Prior to Scott, all previous TEA heads were former superintendents or school board members.
But while he lacks a formal background in education, Williams has not ignored education issues in his political life. In the late 1990s he served on the board of the center for New Black Leadership, a conservative think tank that opposed racial preferences in education and the workplace. While there, Williams spoke out against affirmative action policies and in favor of private school vouchers across the country.
School choice and voucher programs, the subject of a recent Senate education committee hearing, promise to be a hotly debated topic during the upcoming legislative session. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit attacking the University of Texas’ affirmative action policy in October.
During his time as general counsel for the state Republican Party Williams also expressed interest in education issues, said Wayne Hamilton, who was the state GOP’s executive director at the time. He remembered William’s committment to supporting charter schools as a solution to failing public schools and drawing a firm line on keeping schools accountable.
He said Williams is “someone who has always shown the ability to be open minded to anything to make whatever it is he’s working on excel.”
“The secret to Michael Williams is his ability to not say no to a new idea until it’s been vetted and considered,” he said.
Peggy Veneable, the state director of Americans for Prosperity’s Texas branch, also praised Williams. Citing his background as a prosecutor and district attorney, she said in a statement that he was “a no-nonsense administrator who would not hesitate to shut down bad charter schools.”
The Texas State Teacher’s Association, offered a less enthusiastic response to the appointment.
“We hope that Michael Williams will at least listen to teachers, the real education experts, rather than promote the profiteers who would siphon tax dollars from the public schools for vouchers and other privatization schemes,” said President Rita Haecker in a statement, “But the real problem for Texas public schools is not the education commissioner. The real problem is Rick Perry. As long as he is governor, Perry will continue to try to shove public education in Texas back into the nineteenth century.”
Williams, whose parents taught in public schools, holds an undergraduate, master’s, and law degree from the University of Southern California.
MORGAN SMITH reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.