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Texas Education Chief Morath Mum on Transgender Bathroom Issue

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday praised the state Supreme Court's recent opinion upholding the state’s public school funding system and demurred on questions about bathroom use by transgender students.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, right, discusses public education with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the Austin Club in Austin on May 17, 2016.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday praised the state Supreme Court's recent opinion upholding the state’s public school funding system and demurred on questions about bathroom use by transgender students.

“Last time I checked, it was a free country,” Morath said in a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith when asked whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s efforts to overturn a policy in Forth Worth allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity clashed with Morath's belief in the importance of local control.

The issue erupted last week when the Obama administration ordered every public school in the nation to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened to sue over the directive, which came days after Patrick called for the Fort Worth schools superintendent to resign over that district's new guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

But the Texas Education Agency is still reviewing the federal directive, Morath said Tuesday, contending that it was too soon for him to weigh in on the issue.

"Until we have a clear sense of our options, it’s just not appropriate for me to comment,” he said.

WatchFull Video of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath's Interview

The newly minted commissioner, who took over as head of the Texas Education Agency in January, did take a position on last week’s ruling by the state’s highest civil court that deemed the state’s public school funding system constitutional but also in dire need of reform.

“The ruling places the responsibility for policymaking squarely" in the hands of state lawmakers, Morath said. “And that’s where it should be.”

Morath,  a conservative school reformer who voted in favor of suing the state over school finance as a Dallas schools trustee, also said the Legislature has sufficiently addressed the concerns that led to that "yes" vote. He repeatedly said that "how matters more than how much" when it comes to funding levels, also stressing a "laser-like focus" on student outcomes. 

He did say there “absolutely” are tweaks that could be made to the system “to benefit kids,” but did not give specifics. 

School groups worry that, without a court mandate, state lawmakers will pass on a true fix to the long-troubled system.

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Morath to head the Texas Education Agency in December. The agency oversees the state’s more than 1,200 school districts, including charters. One of Morath’s first major moves was restructuring the massive agency, creating five new deputy commissioner positions that he filled mostly with charter school experts.

Morath drew applause Tuesday when he said he is "deeply dedicated to ensuring that every kid in our state has the same chance at the American dream as I had." His remarks came in response to a question about whether he works for Abbott as a cheerleader for the state's K-12 system, or is willing to "tell hard truths" and push improvements. 

He also again said that there is not enough evidence to warrant scrapping this year’s STAAR test scores from school accountability ratings — at least not beyond the more than 14,000 exams that were definitely affected by a computer glitch. Last week, he received a letter from the head of the Texas Association of School Administrators that said 2016 STAAR testing scores should not be used to rate schools or determine whether a student should graduate or advance to the next grade because of widespread problems reported with administration, delivery and scoring.

“If we come across evidence, we will make further adjustments,” he said.

Theresa Trevino, president of the anti-testing group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, called Morath’s comments “unfortunate and inaccurate.” 

"Commissioner Morath seemed dismissive of those who are calling for a one-time moratorium on using the results of these specific STAAR tests since their validity and results have been questioned by very knowledgeable superintendents who actually understand how these tests are impacting students and schools,” Trevino said in a statement sent later Tuesday.

"It is indeed tragic that the Texas Education Agency seems willing to ignore the facts that show how flawed STAAR tests are and to demean those that shine a light on these facts.”

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