Michael Williams

Choice of next education commissioner will say a lot


With the pending departure of Michael Williams, a holdover appointee of Rick Perry, Gov. Greg Abbott now will have an opportunity to appoint his first state education commissioner. Considering Abbott’s education record so far, we better keep our fingers crossed.

Remember, Abbott designated a home-schooler to chair the State Board of Education, backed tax cuts over adequate education spending during last spring’s legislative session and continues to defend the state’s inadequate and unconstitutional school funding system. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Tea Party-types and school privateers also are likely to try to influence the governor’s selection.

Granted, the education commissioner has limited policy-setting authority and has to operate within the confines of laws set by the Legislature and Congress. But school children and educators need a real advocate for public schools in the state’s top education office, someone who – as TSTA President Noel Candelaria pointed out — 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.”

Abbott’s choice will say a lot about whether he really intends to make public education a top priority or will continue to merely pat educators on the head with empty plaudits.



Education commissioner needs to advocate for schools


You would expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick to want to appeal Judge John Dietz’s latest ruling that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional, inadequate and unfair to thousands of Texas children. You would expect that because neither Abbott nor Patrick gives more than a half pint’s worth of lip service for public education, even though they are running for the state’s top two offices.

Further appeal would spare both Abbott and Patrick from having to comprehend real solutions that actually would benefit students, and it would again delay the day of reckoning for a legislative majority that prefers to drag its feet than fulfill its responsibilities.

But what business does the state education commissioner have encouraging an appeal and a waste of additional millions of tax dollars? That is what Commissioner Michael Williams did very soon after Dietz had issued his decision on Thursday.

“Texas is committed to finding solutions to educate every student in every classroom,” Williams said, despite the obvious fact that many political candidates and members of the Legislature are anything but committed to that goal. He also said, “This is an issue that will again be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court.”

Williams is correct that the Legislature, not a single judge, should make school finance decisions. But nothing in the state constitution or state law requires the Legislature to sit back and wait on an expensive appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. The sole purpose of an appeal would be to buy time and hope that a Republican Supreme Court weakens Dietz’s strong ruling, while thousands of Texas school children continue to be shortchanged.

Williams should step up, be a strong advocate for school kids and admit that the trial judge and the 600 school districts that sued the state over funding are correct. The school funding system is abysmal and needs to be fixed now – not two or three years from now.

Just a few days ago, Williams had the gall to blame low STAAR scores on teachers, despite the fact the curriculum and the test aren’t fully aligned and the more-difficult test was introduced as the legislative majority was slashing $5.4 billion from school budgets, causing 11,000 teacher layoffs and thousands of overcrowded classrooms.

The education commissioner was making teachers the scapegoats for a problem he is helping to perpetuate. He, too, has become very good at lip service, and now he is encouraging the legislative majority to keep dodging its responsibility.

State government shares blame for Beaumont debacle


The Beaumont ISD debacle has all the trappings of a Keystone Cops spectacle, except the comedy. There is a lot of absurd scrambling in high places but nothing funny about the district’s financial trouble, its mismanagement, its history of criminal administrators and the effort to fire more than 200 teachers and other school employees, who have been chosen to take the fall.

The Beaumont Teachers Association and TSTA have one overriding goal for BISD, and that is the opportunity for every child in the district to attend a great school. And, you don’t create or keep great schools by firing more than 200 teachers and support staff.

The elected BISD school board refused last night to proceed with the firings, despite being egged on by a state-appointed conservator who claimed, according to the Beaumont Enterprise, “You have more teachers than you need.”

We aren’t hearing any Beaumont parents make that preposterous claim. Very few, if any, Texas school districts have too many teachers. If they did, more than 600 districts wouldn’t be suing the state over inadequate and inequitable school funding.

The conservator obviously was hoping the departing board would fire the teachers so the incoming board, which will be appointed by State Education Commissioner Michael Williams, wouldn’t have to deal with that unpopular option.

So, the fight over jobs and great schools in Beaumont has only begun. Commissioner Williams must appoint a new board that truly represents all the stakeholders in the BISD community, including teachers and parents. And, the BISD community must demand a representative board that will advocate for the best interests of students, root out local mismanagement and be a strong advocate before a state government that has largely neglected the public schools and allowed BISD to become a crisis.



Making teachers an afterthought


While political leaders throughout the United States continue to heap high-stakes tests on 8-year-olds and wring their hands over less-than-magical scores, many of these same leaders – if you want to call them that — persist in neglecting the teachers at the heart of the educational process. And, I am not just talking about Texas, although our state ranks right down there with the most neglectful.

Now, those of you who think teacher pay isn’t a valid educational issue can go back to sleep. If you think teachers are overpaid because most of them get two months off during the summer, even if they cram about 12 or 13 months’ worth of work into a typical school year, you may find the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel more to your level of comprehension.

But if you believe that teachers should be paid as professionals at a level that recognizes and rewards the value of their work, read on to learn just how far off the mark the United States has fallen in this age of “accountability.”

Pay for teachers in the United States is now only sixth highest in the world, according to a new report by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This ranking is based on daily pay of teachers in public primary schools, adjusted for purchasing power parity. The UNESCO report is summarized in HR Exchange, a publication of the Texas Association of School Boards, linked below.

Since 2000, the purchasing power of teachers has increased significantly in many countries, while increasing by less than 5 percent in the United States. This means that average teacher pay in the U.S.  – unlike, say, the pay of hedge fund managers and other business billionaires who are some of our public schools’ biggest critics – has only slightly outpaced inflation. In Texas, according to TASB, the purchasing power for the average teacher in Texas has declined by $1,000 since 2000.

The UNESCO study also found that the United States, on average, rewards experienced teachers less for their years of service — compared to starting teachers’ salaries — than most other industrialized countries. And, the pay disparity between teachers and other people with similar educational backgrounds is greater in the U.S.

Teachers in the United States, according to the report, are paid between 66 percent and 70 percent of the average salaries of other people with bachelor’s degrees. Teachers in the 34 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which include many countries with much smaller economies than the U.S., earn, on average, between 80 percent and 89 percent of the salaries of other individuals with bachelor’s degrees.

That comparison may be worse in Texas, where teacher pay is more than $7,000 below the U.S. average. And, now, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams, prodded by the Obama administration, wants to add insult to injury by imposing a teacher evaluation system that would potentially link teacher pay to student test scores.

Williams needs to get a clue, and, unfortunately, he isn’t the only one.