Education Commissioner Michael Williams is a big presence. His deep, hearty laugh and his 6-foot frame fill the room as he talks school policy with educators who came to hear him speak last week.
If voters had chosen differently, the 59-year old lawyer and former Texas railroad commissioner -- the first African-American elected to statewide office -- would be sitting in Congress. But he lost the Republican primary last year. Then his close friend, Gov. Rick Perry, appointed him education commissioner.
In a conversation last week with KERA, Williams said his political savvy will help him cut through Austin’s bureaucracy.
"I've had the opportunity to lead large, complicated, complex agencies before," Williams says. "I have learned over the course of my professional career how to ask the right questions of the right people and get to the right answers."
Williams deflects questions about his education credentials, saying his tenure as an assistant education secretary for civil rights under the first President Bush has prepared him for Texas' challenges.
"I dealt with issues regarding youngsters with limited English proficiency,” he said. “I dealt with issues of youngsters who have disabilities. I dealt with questions about the over-representation of minority males in special education.”
Williams says he also dealt with schools suspending students too quickly and too often to control discipline.
He believes suspension “should be a last resort not a first option” because suspended students often fall behind in their studies then become discouraged and drop out.
Williams plans to address excessive suspensions in Texas by going public with the numbers.
“We at TEA can shine a spotlight on districts and their suspension rates by making it very public,” he says. “We have districts in this state where a youngster has been suspended for 100 days or more. That’s more than half the school year. The public needs to know that."
Williams is a longtime advocate of school choice and vouchers. That’s something that concerns some public school advocates, though the commissioner says providing those attendance options for students is a legislative decision he won’t try to influence.
He says he can’t comment on whether school funding is adequate because of an ongoing school finance lawsuit, but he plans to ask lawmakers for additional money to assist teachers who must prepare students for the new STAAR, end-of-course exams.
Those exams, and the state’s new accountability system, have consumed more of the commissioner’s time than any other issue.
As he revamps the state’s plan for assessing performance here’s one thing to look for: instead of designating schools as exemplary or unsatisfactory, he’ll give them old, fashioned letter grades.
“It’s very likely I’ll settle on a labeling system that goes A through F. Folks understand what that it is,” he explained.
Coming later this week: A look at how STAARS testing is affecting one district and Williams' proposal for grading schools differently.