Texas’ schools chief could get more muscle under legislative proposals

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AUSTIN — Former Dallas trustee Mike Morath is a popular guy. He’s seen as sharp, energetic and strategic.

That’s a big reason lawmakers have filed bills that would give the state’s education commissioner significantly more power.

The position would have more authority on a variety of measures — from determining how to implement the new A-F accountability system for schools to creating a grant program for him to dole out as he sees fit.

Longtime Texas education observers say the moves have met little resistance this session because of Morath. Still, they worry it sets a precedent that could be hard to dial back.

“It’s risky because while there’s wide support for the current commissioner, you never know who the next commissioner is going to be,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “Do you want the next one building everything from the ground up, too? Commissioners come and go.”

Texas Education Agency officials said Morath could not comment on pending legislation.

The education commissioner already has significant sway in how Texas’ 1,200 school districts and charters are run. But lawmakers say the commissioner needs explicit authority to take on the toughest problems, particularly when things go wrong.

“There’s been some pretty egregious examples of things going on in school districts, and they generally go on for a long time,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, head of the Senate’s education committee. “If you look at districts that fail, it’s usually in connection with improprieties.”

One bill would give the commissioner explicit authority to investigate fraud and waste cases in public schools with the ability to subpoena testimony and documents for the cases. The agency currently has investigators, including former law enforcement officers, to review such claims.

But Morath recently testified that he needs this authority in statute because some districts and charters fighting closure or state intervention because of mismanagement have tried to fight those efforts saying the commissioner isn’t explicitly charged to investigate fraud and waste.

“Our general investigative authority is legally a patchwork quilt,” Morath said. “We can investigate here, here but not here.”

During the last legislative session, lawmakers gave the commissioner similar subpoena power to investigate teacher misconduct. Through April 2017, the commissioner’s office had issued 845 subpoenas since the new law took place.

The education commissioner typically has some say when implementing a new accountability system that rates how well schools educate kids. But legislation that would tweak the new A-F grading system gives him significant more responsibility in setting standards, though it also requires some stakeholder input as well.

The House version, for example, would allow him to bump up one letter grade for schools.

Some are concerned that could lead to commissioners feeling political pressure to change grades. But others noted that lawmakers are eager to give Morath more say in accountability because of his high energy, strong data background and deep understanding of the complex challenges in public schools.

“They like where he comes from and where he sees us going as a state,” said Rob Eissler, a former representative who chaired the education committee and ushered in the 2009 accountability reform.

Observers say that’s why the Legislature hasn’t balked at creating a grant program in which the commissioner could dole out money for high-quality education programs he deems worthy.

A bill heard Thursday in the House Public Education committee would allow the commissioner to accept donations on behalf of TEA and use them for grants. Seed money for the program would come from selling the property and assets of failed charter schools the state owns.

Representatives from teachers’ groups at the hearing said the state should use the funds for other needs, such as helping the campuses that receive students from the schools that failed or funding existing grants, like supply reimbursements for educators.

With the end of the legislative session approaching, it’s unclear if the measures will make it to law. For example, the House and Senate have to work out significant differences in their versions of the A-F accountability legislation.

Taylor said he believes the legislation is crafted so that no commissioner would have too much authority.

“We’re blessed to have an education commissioner who is so well thought of and respected. But you have to draft bills so that it doesn’t matter who the commissioner is, but that the position continues to function in the manner that the Legislature intends,” Taylor said.

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