Williams named Commissioner of Education

Governor Rick Perry appointed Michael Williams as the new Commissioner of Education today.  Williams is the former Chairman of the Railroad Commission and most recently a Republican candidate for US Congress.  When Williams was elected to the Railroad Commission, he became the first African American in Texas history to hold an executive statewide elected post, and today he became the first to be appointed as Texas Commissioner of Education.

As the son of public school teachers who earned degrees in math and the husband of a mechanical engineer, Williams is the creator and co-sponsor of a summer camp for 6th through 12th graders to inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.  Williams also narrates short stories for children of all ages, including the visually impaired and those with special needs, and has previously served as the Honorary State Chairman of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Texas.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush appointed Williams to be Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, a position previously held by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Williams graduated from Lee High School in his hometown of Midland, Texas.  He then went on to earn a Bachelor’s, a Master’s and a law degree from the University of Southern California.

Williams replaces outgoing Commissioner Robert Scott, who stepped down July 2.


Senate Education Hearing on School Choice

The Senate Committee on Education met on Friday to hear testimony on their Interim Charges 5 and 6, relating to school choice programs and charter schools.  Committee Vice-Chair Senator Dan Patrick served as chair for this particular hearing and he expressed interest in pursuing school voucher legislation during the upcoming session.

The first two panels provided an overview of school choice programs in other states, specifically Florida, Indiana, and Louisiana.  School choice was described as an extension of the public school system rather than an opt-out of the public schools, where “ultimate accountability” exists as parents make the choice to have their child attend.  The quality of services for students was questioned, specifically for that of special needs students and English Language Learners.  Testimony from a representative of Families Empowered described how this group helps families find the “right fit school” for them.

The committee also heard testimony from Andrew Erben of the Texas Institute for Education Reform (TIER) who argued that schools are too much like a business, and that we must take individual characteristics and needs into account when serving students.  He also testified that the current funding in system is adequate, and there is simply a need to spend money smarter. 

Taxpayer savings grants were also discussed.  Joseph Blast of the Heartland Institute stated that there are no constitutional barriers because grants would be given to parents rather than private schools, so therefore there is no violation of church and state provisions.  Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation program in Indiana emphasized that you can’t create a voucher program without giving traditional school superintendents the ability and freedom to compete as well.

The first of three panels on charter schools featured David Dunn of the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA), who suggested that rather than lifting the charter cap altogether, it should be raised gradually on an annual basis to ensure that TEA has the capacity to manage the increased numbers of charters and charter applicants.  TCSA supports tighter controls and potential elimination of charter schools not meeting the needs of students.  Dunn also testified regarding the funding gap between traditional schools and charter schools, especially for facilities.

The final two panels of invited testimony focused primarily on policies to ensure accountability for charter schools that would lead to success and the practice of partnerships with traditional school districts.  Dr. David Anthony of Raise Your Hand Texas described some legislative provisions his organization will support next session regarding accountability for charters.  Dr. Duncan Klussmann of Spring Branch ISD described the partnership his district has with KIPP and YES Prep, and the two charter operators working with Austin ISD, IDEA Public Schools and Responsive Education Solutions, also described the recent partnership forged with that district.

Public testimony was taken prior to the conclusion of the hearing.  Advocates of public education noted their opposition to any programs that divert public taxpayer dollars away from public schools.

The handouts and audio from the August 24 hearing, can be accessed on the Committee website.

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