On April 1, 2011, two Texas House members staged a mini-revolt against the state agency charged with overseeing the state’s public schools.
During the lower chamber’s debate on its version of the budget, Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, the powerful chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, proposed an amendment that would remove all discretionary funding from the Texas Education Agency, which he said had become a “beast of bureaucracy.” He said he wanted to send a message to the agency that “unless you're absolutely required to be there, we don't need you … interfering.”
Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, soon followed with his own plan to defund the agency, which he envisioned as “one guy and one phone.” If the TEA “went away tomorrow,” he said, “absolutely nobody would notice.”
Unlike Solomons, Dutton was attacking the agency not for its bureaucracy, but for what he viewed as its lack of support of students. “This is the one time we can all stand up for children in this state and say to TEA we will not accept it any longer,” he told his colleagues.
Neither amendment succeeded. But the fierce display that accompanied them illustrates the competing demands on the agency that must implement the policy changes the Legislature enacts.
“There's a great misconception that all we do is push paper,” said current commissioner Robert Scott in an interview Thursday. “We solve problems too, from the school finance formulas, special education disputes, to differences between state and federal policy.”
Even as it is coping with deep reductions to its own operating budget, the agency is on the frontlines of helping school districts grapple with their own cuts and rolling out a complex new standardized testing system. By Friday, to absorb a 36 percent cut, it will have dropped about a third of its employees. Further complicating the agency’s job is the perception that persists among some school leaders that it is caught between the political ambitions of the governor and the needs of the state’s 1,237 districts and charters.
As schools confront the uncertainties of budget reductions and the new testing system, they will be pressing for an agency chief “who can stand up in all this chaos, someone who can listen, who speaks as an independent voice,” said Richard Middleton, the outgoing superintendent of San Antonio’s North East ISD and a past head of the state’s school administrators’ association.
Over the past decade, Middleton said he’s observed the role of the commissioner change from one of relative autonomy to what has essentially become a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “When a commissioner speaks, you anticipate that they are speaking for the governor,” he said, adding that impression is amplified by the length of Gov. Rick Perry’s tenure.
In 1995, the Legislature passed a change in the education code that included switching the commissioner’s position to one appointed by the governor's office, without input from the State Board of Education, which previously recommended a pool of candidates.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican who represented Mount Pleasant in the Senate from 1988 to 2004 and helped rewrite the education code in 1995, said Scott’s close relationship with the governor isn’t surprising. “Commissioner Scott is very much a Perry lieutenant and has been for years, but that's not unusual,” he said.
Scott also said the governor’s influence was natural in an executive branch state agency. “Every agency in state government that is an executive branch agency is exactly that,” he said. “I can't say we are more or less aligned with the governor than any other governor in state history.”
Fulfilling the demands of his position is a balancing act, he said, but added that the role of the agency was clearly defined in the law. “You first look to [the education code] and interpret that based on whatever conflict or controversy is arising at the time,” he said. “And then you hopefully use a little common sense.”
When he took the helm of the agency in 2007 after a brief term as interim commissioner in 2003 and a four-year stint as chief deputy commissioner, Scott became the first TEA head since the rewrite of the code who did not have a background as either a school board member or superintendent. He has a law degree from the University of Texas and served as an education policy advisor in the governor’s office. He also advised U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who, before going to Washington, was a state senator.
A lack of experience as a teacher or administrator in the trenches of public education could contribute to the uneasiness of some school leaders smarting from the losses of the legislative session. Former commissioner Shirley Neeley said it was a tricky task to “walk the very fine line” of balancing the job’s many obligations. Serving as superintendent of Houston’s Galena Park ISD before Perry appointed her in 2004 helped her do that, she said.
“It's easier to be their voice when you’re one of them,” she said. "School people would always like to see one of their own in that chair."
A particular area where some school officials worry that the political agenda of the governor’s office might conflict with the TEA’s ability to support them is the July 29 release of district’s accountability ratings, Middleton said.
They won’t include the Texas Projection Measure, a mechanism that boosted ratings by using a predicted future score based on a campus-wide average. After public outcry, the agency discontinued it.
Last summer, to help districts with the transition, the TEA put out TPM-enhanced ratings alongside regular ratings. But this year, only the non TPM-enhanced ratings will be released at the end of the month. Districts will be in the position of explaining the dip in ratings to parents, Middleton said, many of whom will be asked to pay more in local taxes to make up for the loss in state revenue.
“We need someone to stand up on the pulpit and take the slings and arrows and say, ‘yes, we tried something, but it didn't work,’” Middleton said. “That kind of message is going to be incredibly important.”
Other educators question why TEA didn’t push harder to find additional revenue or for the use of the Rainy Day Fund to cushion the cuts to public schools. But John Folks, the superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio, the state’s fourth largest district, said he didn’t fault the agency. “I'm sure that's because it was not something that was advocated for by the governor,” he said.
Folks added that he thought the close relationship between the commissioner and the governor was generally a positive thing — “but at the same time, when we are cutting education, what schools look for is advocacy on our part.”
“I just feel like Robert's been put in a very difficult position,” he said. “Because I do believe he wants to do as much as he can to help us but when they are cutting back on his revenue, he's in the same situation we are in as superintendents.”