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Texas K-12 Chief's Interesting Relationship With State Lawmakers

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams gave state lawmakers some interesting news today. During a discussion he had with members of the Senate education committee, the Associated Press has reported, Williams, who was nominated last year by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and just officially confirmed on March 27, told them that he planned to mandate an accountability system for Texas schools that featured an A-F school grading system beginning in 2014. Right now, Lone Star State schools are evaluated on a scale that ranges from "Exemplary" to "Academically Unacceptable." You can see for example that the Bob Hope School, which is in fact named for the famous comedian, was "Academically Acceptable" in 2011.

What made Williams' comment notable, at least from a political perspective, was that he didn't plan to wait for lawmakers to pass legislation or otherwise sign off on the idea. He simply planned to implement it unilaterally.

Now, as the AP notes, legislators have already introduced bills this session to get A-F grades for Texas schools, but Williams' comments appear to render those bills unnecessary. As quoted by Morgan Smith in the Texas Tribune, Williams gave perhaps the most popular reason to support such a school accountability system: "It's a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too."

In fact, Williams went so far as to say that he planned to make the announcement last week, and only spiked that plan because members of the Senate's K-12 committee called him to testify about education matters. That could be interpreted as Williams' protest that lawmakers should have left him alone to do his job.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican, agrees with Williams that A-F is the way to go for school accountability. But another Republican lawmaker, Sen. Robert Duncan, said that it would be best for Williams to consult with lawmakers first in order to get "investment and buy-in" from the politicians. Obviously, this implies Williams did not do this before making his A-F announcement (or else this means Duncan is out of the loop on this particular topic).

Patrick is an interesting case here. During a different part of Williams' testimony, Patrick brought up a bill he has sponsored that would eliminate Algebra II as a high school graduation requirement and decrease the number of courses in various subjects required for graduation. As my colleague Erik Robelen of the Curriculum Matters blog wrote, a coalition of Texas businesses has argued that lowering these basic requirements would hurt Texas students in the long run.

When Patrick claimed that a potential shift to fewer tests did not mean that the standards for a Texas diploma would drop, Williams piped up and said, "Allow me to respectfully disagree." As Ericka Mellon of the Houston Chronicle tells it, Williams appeared set to say more, but Patrick cut him off, saying that senators get to ask the questions, although it seems like Williams was more interested in stating his opinion, given that when he later got a chance to speak again, he said that the loss of Algebra II in particular as a requirement was troubling.

There's a plan afoot to amend Patrick's bill that would require students to essentially opt out of the existing graduation requirements in order to take what Williams views as the less-rigorous road to a diploma. Williams has indicated he thinks lowering the number of tests students must pass to graduate is a good idea.

By the way, Patrick has also made waves during this legislative session by calling for vouchers, and for making critical remarks about the state's relatively new testing regimen that has sparked quite a bit of dyspepsia at the state level.

In any event, Williams, who has a tea party background, is having a somewhat prickly early start as the confirmed education commissioner. He's clearly not afraid to disagree with lawmakers in public, and he has a clear agenda as well.

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