Life After Scott

Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott answers questions at TASA midwinter conference in Austin, Texas February 1st, 2011
Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott answers questions at TASA midwinter conference in Austin, Texas February 1st, 2011

Texas Education Agency chief Robert Scott’s resignation Tuesday wasn't exactly a bombshell — the education community has been speculating about the long-serving commissioner’s departure for several months now.

But that doesn’t mean the speculation about who's taking his place will be quiet.

The agency is in the midst of developing a new school accountability system to go along with the standardized tests rolled out for the first time this spring. Its lawyers will be defending the Texas school finance system this fall in court. In 2013, its leader will likely once again be confronted with a dismal public education budget — but this time that will be after schools have already absorbed $5.4 billion in cuts from the last time around. 

Scott’s successor will also be inheriting an agency whose morale may be at an all-time low. Last year, it took a 36 percent budget cut and shed a third of its staff. The past legislative session did little to dispel the perception that persists among educators that the agency is impossibly caught between the political demands of the governor’s office and the needs of the some 1,200 charter and traditional school districts it oversees. Many of its top officials are approaching retirement age, meaning that the next commissioner may need to find a way to attract — and keep — new staff there.

So who will that successor be? The answer hinges on Gov. Rick Perry, and what he needs to accomplish with the appointment.

Three loosely organized factions will be watching the governor’s moves very closely: the superintendents and school board members who make up the education establishment; the homeschoolers, business groups, charter school and voucher supporters in the reform movement; and, of course, the political class. There might be an ideal candidate who appeals, or is at least palatable, to all three groups — but in all likelihood, the governor is going to need to decide which group he’s most willing to disappoint with his choice.

Before Scott, Perry and Gov. George W. Bush tended to pick either a current or former school board member or superintendent for the job. (When Scott, who has a law degree and an extensive policy background in education, took over the agency in 2007, he became the first TEA head since 1995 without a background as either.) It’s possible Perry might revert to that tradition. But he will need a strong political enforcer for the upcoming legislative session — and he might not find that as easily among a pool of candidates who've had to face making the deep cuts last time around in their own school districts.