Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Citing a yearslong long-distance relationship with his wife, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams informed Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday morning that he will step down from his position effective Jan. 1.
“During the course of my career in public service, I have held two statewide positions since 1999 — first as a member of the Texas Railroad Commission and then as commissioner of education. Both of those are based in Austin,” Williams wrote in a letter to Abbott. “While carrying out my responsibilities, I have kept my house in Arlington and managed to maintain a long-distance partnership with my wife. But after more than 16 years of weekend commuting, I feel it is finally time to simply head home.”
Williams, a Republican, was appointed to head the Texas Education Agency by then-Gov. Rick Perry in August 2012. The agency oversees the state’s 1,200-plus public school districts — traditional and charter — where more than 5 million students are enrolled.
The Midland native's most recent high-profile act as commissioner was increasing the number of questions that students will have to answer correctly on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams in order to pass, albeit at a slower pace than originally planned. That more difficult testing regime debuted months before Williams’ appointment.
No Child Left Behind Standoff
His resignation comes amid an ongoing standoff between the state and federal government over the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act — President George W. Bush’s signature domestic policy.
This month, the U.S. Department of Education granted Texas’ request for an extension to its waiver from the act, which — if implemented fully — would have labeled as failing almost every school district in the state. But the Education Department also placed the state on “high-risk status” because it has not met one of the conditions of the waiver — implementing a statewide teacher evaluation system that would account for student scores on standardized exams.
The Education Department rejected the state’s proposal for a new evaluation system in January in part because it included no mechanism for ensuring that every school district would use it — something Williams has consistently said he will not, and cannot, do because state law prohibits it. It means the state could be in jeopardy of losing its waiver and, with it, a sizable amount of federal education funding.
Williams cited that ongoing “conversation” Thursday when asked if there was anything he wished he had gotten done during his tenure.
"I would hope that we could complete the conversation with the national government with regards to the waiver and impress upon them that there ought to be more than one way to assess student growth and that student tests … should not be the only way that we measure” it, he told The Texas Tribune.
The new teacher evaluation system the federal government rejected, currently in its second pilot year and set to roll out statewide next school year, is “without a doubt” sufficiently rigorous, Williams said, explaining that a majority of school districts — about 85 percent — have indicated they will use it.
Seeing Better Morale at TEA
Asked about his proudest accomplishments, Williams first listed improving employee morale at the education agency, noting it was "1,200 strong just five years ago and was reduced down to 600 (full-time equivalent employees) and now about 800.”
“The agency had been beaten on, criticized by stakeholders from all sides,” he said. Now, “my staff feels good about themselves and they feel good about the work they do.”
He said he accomplished that mostly by doing “little things,” like being physically present in the office — dropping in to chat day to day and attending ice cream socials and other fun employee events, which also were expanded — and sending cards to all employees on their birthdays.
“There is no doubt that the agency is pushed to do a whole lot more with not enough,” he said, when asked if the agency had enough resources to handle its many responsibilities.
Williams took over leadership of the agency the year after lawmakers reduced the public education budget by $5.4 billion to help balance a post-recession budget shortfall, sparking an ongoing lawsuit against the state by nearly two-thirds of the state’s school districts.
Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said Thursday in a statementthat the agency "faced many challenges under [Williams’] watch, as the legislative majority slashed the state education budget while excessive standardized testing drew the wrath of parents and educators."
The association "urges the governor to listen to the vast majority of Texans and appoint a commissioner who will advocate for a greater investment in our public schools and policies that will end punitive standardized testing that robs teachers and students of the time they need for real teaching and learning,” Candelaria said.
A spokeswoman for the governor said there was no word yet on who would replace Williams, or when Abbott would decide.
Williams said that person should be “somebody who knows how to lead and manage an agency, someone who knows how to make hard and tough decisions and is willing to do so, who has relationships with the Legislature and who has some level of respect — if you will — of the public.”
“I don’t believe … that you have to have been an educator or superintendent to do this job,” he said. “Others may disagree.”
Praise for and From Abbott
In his resignation letter to Abbott Thursday, Williams praised the freshman governor for championing various public education policies during his short tenure, including an $118 million pre-K grant program that passed the Legislature earlier this year despite opposition from the far-right faction of the GOP.
Williams also cited legislation that will re-establish math and reading academies for teachers and create “multi-campus innovation zones” that will exempt qualifying schools from certain state and local requirements so they can experiment with new forms of instruction. Finally, he praised state leaders for “again broadening the choices and information provided to Texas parents to help them make informed decisions about their children’s education," referencing a new system he advocated for that will assign A-through-F letter grades to individual districts and — after the 2015 session — school campuses.
(The second, and last, proudest accomplishment Williams listed Thursday were the changes he made to the state’s accountability system, although he said “there is still room for improvement.”)
"I have no doubt that your commitment to public education will be key to maintaining our state’s position as a national leader for many years to come,” Williams told Abbott in the letter.
Abbott returned the praise in a statement that described Williams as “a public servant dedicated to elevating our state’s education system to be the best in the nation."
"I am grateful for his leadership and steadfast advocacy on behalf of our students, and I wish him the best of luck in all future endeavors," he said.