EDUCATION
08/28/2012 02:57 pm ET

Michael Williams, Ex-Texas Railroad Commission Chair, Named New Head Of Texas Education Agency

Tea party activist Michael Williams, former chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, has been named the new commissioner of the Texas Education Agency by Gov. Rick Perry, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Williams previously served as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights under President George H.W. Bush, but that was his only official foray into education policy. He becomes the first African American to assume the post. Democratic Rep. Lawrence Allen, Jr., one of two African American members on the State Board of Education, told the Houston Chronicle that the appointment will encourage minority students.

“As we look at Barack Obama as the first African American president, we see all the energy and enthusiasm among minority students in terms of high aspirations,” Allen said. “[Williams] has an excellent story to tell, and he has some excellent things in his background that will give him balance.”

In 1998, Williams was appointed to the Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and natural gas industry, by then-Gov. George W. Bush, but resigned in 2011 to seek the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination. Williams later decided to run for the 25th Congressional District, losing in the primary.

Robert Scott, the previous commissioner, stepped down from his post last month after five years on the job and 18 years with the agency. The longest-serving education commissioner in two decades, Scott submitted his resignation a few months after apologizing for the $5 billion in cuts to school funding made by the Texas Legislature, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.

According to the Statesman, Scott also caused a stir last winter when he publicly stated that the school testing system had become a “perversion” of its original intent.

Williams will have his work cut out for him, as the state currently faces six lawsuits over how it funds public schools, the Texas Tribune reports. Additionally, more than half of Texas public schools failed to meet annual benchmarks under No Child Left Behind, but the state is one of several that has yet to apply for a waiver from the sweeping Bush-era law.

Texas’s standardized testing system has also been a source of controversy, and in March, districts across the state signed on to a resolution against high-stakes tests sent out by the Texas Association of School Administrators. The resolution stated that an over-reliance on high-stakes testing is “strangling our public schools,” and called for the state Legislature to reexamine the academic accountability system.

To further complicate the matter, a University of Texas at Austin professor claims to have found a serious design flaw in the state exams that stems from test developer Pearson’s use of “item response theory” in devising questions. Using I.R.T., test publishers select questions based on a model that correlates students’ ability with the probability that they will answer a question correctly. This allows for a test that is more sensitive to how it ranks students than to gauging what they have learned.

Both Pearson and the Texas Education Agency have refuted these accusations.

Perry also announced that Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, who has been a deputy commissioner at TEA since 2007, will serve as Williams’ second in command. According to the Tribune, Reynolds came under fire in 2007 when she allegedly pushed to fire the agency’s then-science director Chis Comer for forwarding an email critical of intelligent design in violation of an internal neutrality policy.

"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 written statement Monday. "Together, they will build on the improvements achieved during the tenure of Robert Scott and Todd Webster, and will ensure our children are prepared for the challenges of college and the workplace.

"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."

According to the Statesman, Williams has been outspoken in his support of school voucher programs -- a topic that will no doubt be fiercely debated during the upcoming legislative session.

At a forum on Friday, national advocates for private school vouchers contended that Texas is behind other states in offering private school alternatives for public school students, specifically those who are low-income or have special needs.

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