Skip to main content

New Education Chief Overhauls Top of Agency

Three of the five key hires announced Thursday by Education Commissioner Mike Morath have extensive charter school experience, and only two appear to have solid Texas ties — something teacher groups and traditional public schools were quick to point out.

Lead image for this article

Three months after his swearing in, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced his picks Thursday for several new deputy commissioner positions he created as part of a sweeping reorganization of the Texas Education Agency. 

Three of the five hires have extensive charter school experience and only two appear to have solid Texas ties — something teacher groups and traditional public schools were quick to point out.

Martin Winchester, who will oversee the agency’s educator leadership and quality division, developed a principal recruiting program for charter network IDEA Public Schools in Texas. Penny Schwinn, who will oversee the agency’s assessment and accountability division, opened a charter school in Sacramento before going to work for the Delaware Department of Education, where she has also overseen accountability and performance. And Megan Aghazadian, who will oversee operations for the agency, has had a similar role with KIPP in Austin.

The three will start May 9, according to the education agency.

The two other hires Morath announced Thursday, who have already started, are A.J. Crabill, a respected school reformer who served on the Kansas City Public Schools board, and Kara Belew, who previously served as statewide budget director for Gov. Greg Abbott.

Belew, who also worked as a senior education adviser for former Gov. Rick Perry, will serve as deputy commissioner of finance.

Abbott named Morath education commissioner in December. The outspoken school reformer previously served on the Dallas school board.

Crabill, who went by the name Airick Leonard West in Kansas City, became deputy commissioner of governance late last month after changing his last name to match that of his adoptive parents. He also changed his middle name, according to a biography posted on the education agency website.

“Raised as a foster child and experiencing homelessness at times, he was bounced around for years until he found a loving home,” the biography says. “In fact, he was born and has been known as Airick Leonard West until recently when he honored a promise to his foster parents to go through the adult adoption process, taking their names and marking the significance of the journey God put him on to become Airick Journey Crabill (or A.J.).”

Biographies of the five hires can be found here.

Noting that "at least two of (Morath's) deputy commissioners have high-profile experiences with charter schools," the Texas State Teachers Association urged Morath and his appointees Thursday "to make the needs of all 5.2 million Texas public school students their singular priority before focusing on alternatives that provide for only select groups of students."

"TEA should put first things first and make it a priority to recommend a new school funding plan that adequately and fairly provides all students and educators the resources they need for success," the association said in a statement, alluding to an effort by charter schools to secure state funding for facilities.

Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said Morath's picks are "not typical of the types of folks who have served in leadership positions in the agency before" but that the heavy representation of those with charter school experience is less concerning than it is noteworthy.

Morath's picks have "a lot of wide and varied experience," she said. "It'll be interesting to see, given their backgrounds, what kind of perspectives they do bring to Texas public schools."

Seth Rau, legislative coordinator for the San Antonio school district, said having more charter school advocates in leadership positions "will set up more tension between TEA and ISDs than in the past.” 

Several longtime high-ranking education agency officials are departing amid Morath's restructuring, which eliminated three high-ranking positions: Chief deputy commissioner, deputy commissioner for policy and program and chief of staff. Those positions had been held by Lizzette Reynolds, Michael Berry and Will Fullerton, respectively.

Others are departing voluntarily, education agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said.

Gloria Zyskowski, who had been the director of the student assessment division and worked at the education agency for a decade, is retiring Aug. 31. (Ratcliffe noted Zyskowksi's departure was decided before recent problems with online STAAR exams.) 

Lisa Dawn-Fischer, who will leave April 30 after 14 years at the agency, had served as associate commissioner of school finance; Amanda Brownson, who will leave sometime in June, had served as state funding director since 2013. Both women are considered school finance experts. 

Their departures are notable at a time when the Texas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in a sweeping case challenging the state's public school funding system as unconstitutional.

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association and Texas Classroom Teachers Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Yes, I'll donate today

Explore related story topics

Public education Texas Education Agency