Big Fish,Small Bowl

On View: Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses

On November 16 of last year, Mike Moses found out what it means to be a public figure -- with a group of about 30 students clamoring outside his office at the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the new Commissioner of Education decided to do what many a public figure has done: stay out of sight. The students went home without having met with their education tsar, and Moses got blasted in the press. Those students and many education professionals were outraged at the commissioner's refusal to apply for $1.3 million in available federal grant funds for school health programs because the money would go toward HIV prevention education. Well aware of previous battles on such topics, Moses was not up for the fight.

Despite the heat, Moses still thinks he did the right thing in refusing to talk with students. "I don't think you can sit down with 20 or 30 people and have a constructive conversation," he explained in a recent interview. "There was a lot of emotion in that situation, to be honest with you. And I understand that. And frankly, I don't know that I wouldn't have added to it by having that meeting." Moses' response comes months after he reversed his position on the grant funds; it also reveals his tentative nature and elementary politics.

Since he assumed his position on March 9 last year, Moses has continually struggled for definition through the fishbowl of politics in Austin. As the governor's pick for the state's most high-profile administrative job in education, Moses was nonetheless at pains not to be viewed as the proverbial party faithful, rewarded with patronage for a job well done. After almost 11 months in office, and in headlines, and on op-ed pages, Moses is still very much learning the rules of the fishbowl and, more than occasionally, slipping up. The question remaining for Moses-watchers is: Are the waters a little deeper than he expected?

Moses' image suffered right away when he received an $18,000 annual pay hike the day after he took office. He was irritated by accusations that he had ex post facto misgivings about the adequacy of his compensation and vehemently denied that he lobbied the governor for a raise. The position was already budgeted for a raise, he argued.

Normally, this is the type of decision that might reasonably be expected to be brought before the State Board of Education. But knowing how controversial such a debate could become, it is privately thought that Moses made the decision himself to help protect state board members from needless controversy in their re-election campaigns this year -- especially board Chairman Jack Christie, whom the governor selected for the position over ranking Republican member Geraldine Miller. (Miller also raised $40,000 for Bush during his campaign.) Christie, an admitted "poster child" for conservatism, is in the fight of his life to keep his seat against Terri Leo, a Houston-area member of the right-leaning Concerned Women of America.

Then came the latest controversy, which erupted in November when Moses notified the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that the TEA wouldn't be applying for an available $1.3 million in grant funds to develop health education in public schools, which would include comprehensive HIV prevention education. At the time, Moses asserted that the funds could not be used in accordance with state law, which now allows schools to present an abstinence-only curriculum. Educators, students, and community leaders who support comprehensive health education went wild. And now, in light of his January 11 announcement that the TEA would accept the grant, he denies that it represents a reversal at all. All of that, and the fact that education professionals complain that Moses delivers the rules from on high, but rarely comes down from the mountain himself, adds to the commissioner's unfavorable reputation.

One year ago, it's fairly safe to say, few outside the cliques of education administrators' groups and other professional organizations knew the name Mike Moses. A son of East Texas and educator parents, Moses stayed close to home for his own schooling, earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Stephen F. Austin University, and a doctorate in educational administration from East Texas State University. Though he had made good progress in his career, leaving classroom instruction early, moving steadily up through the ranks of administration, he had still only worked in small, mid-sized, or suburban school districts: Duncanville, Garland, Tatum, LaMarque, and finally, Lubbock. His next logical move would have been to an urban school district, perhaps as a superintendent.

But then the political waters did ripple. Democratic Governor Ann Richards lost her re-election bid in 1994. Her commissioner, Lionel "Skip" Meno, the irascible, eggheaded Yankee -- who was greatly admired and respected as a professional, if not always adored personally -- was out. Moses, known to elected officials from politically conservative regions of the state, was presented to the State Board of Education, and then the Texas Senate, as the new big catch. At 42, he became the youngest commissioner ever appointed, and as some might say, he was released into the biggest pond of them all -- Austin, and the TEA -- with the understanding that he was not to explore the waters on his own.

It had to be. A "new," smaller TEA emerged from the 74th Legislature, as promised to voters by the new governor. Appropriations for the agency went from $19.7 million in fiscal year 1994-95 to $17.8 million for 1995-96. All departments were asked to reduce their budgets by 15%. Staffing was reduced by over 20%, from 1,144 full-time equivalents to 889. Since the TEA is the agency that creates the state's school policy for review and approval by the Texas Board of Education, the most important changes that came last year were the revisions to the state education code: more freedom was granted to school districts, and some of the TEA's regulatory powers were revoked, especially in the areas of school district governance and curriculum.

Indeed, some of the agency's messiest and most public incidents under Meno's tenure had revolved around curriculum, and local communities' right to refuse or amend it. Texas made national headlines during its fractious adoption of health textbooks in 1993-94; a long, protracted fracas ensued over a TEA-developed curriculum in health and sexuality education (Education for Self-Responsibility, or ESR) during the same year. Ultra-conservative groups -- such as the Texas Eagle Forum, Concerned Women of America, Texas Council for Family Values, and the American Family Association of Texas -- initiated these highly charged, emotional battles, and for the most part, victory was theirs.

After securing many, though not all, bowdlerizations of the textbooks, shunting ESR to the back burner, and ousting a few moderate members on the state board, conservatives had reason to feel pretty good. But they weren't done yet. And they demanded to know from the new commissioner if they would have to fight the same battles all over again.

Moses' first speaking en- gagement in Austin was on May 2 before the Capitol City Christian Coalition. The significance of this was not lost on anyone, certainly not the crowd of about 75 people. He knew his audience, opening his speech with the preacher's standard of three jokes, and told them that, just like them, he was raised with "cherished, traditional, American values" of the home, church, and school. He spoke somewhat cryptically of public schools having to learn to confront "competition" (sometimes a euphemism for public school vouchers), but said that they would always be a part of American life. With that in mind, the new TEA would be decentralized, and less obstructive than before, Moses pronounced, as if he'd thought of it himself.

But fought-and-won, dead-and-buried battles over health textbooks were still very much on people's minds. An audience member shouted out to him, "Sir, I just beseech you to listen to the public when we cry out -- and don't take the [advisory] textbook committee's recommendations!" Moses replied that he understood, because he comes from a conservative culture. "I assure you, I will be very attentive to that," he told the man. But, he added, he did not want to see citizens, no matter how rightly concerned or well-intentioned they may be, tangling with the TEA in public again.

No, Moses does not like surprises and shies away from controversy, if he can. "He wants to know what people are thinking, before he does anything," said Marjorie Reynolds, president of the Lubbock Federation of Teachers when Moses was superintendent. "He wouldn't want people walking with placards or protesting in his office after he does something."

"He's a fine man," said longtime state board member Geraldine Miller, a moderate Republican. "The truth is, he wants to please everybody. He was Governor Bush's choice."

And in trying to please everyone, Moses pleased no one, especially during the most recent flap over the CDC grant. In an October 3 memo to State Board of Education Chairman Jack Christie, obtained by the Chronicle under the Texas Open Records Act, Moses reveals his sweeping contemplation of the ramifications of rejecting or accepting the federal grant, the purpose of which is to "Strengthen Comprehensive School Health Education Through a Basic Program to Prevent HIV Infection and other STDs."

Ticking off the advantages and disadvantages of applying for the grant, Moses wrote, "The concept of comprehensive school health education, including sexuality education, has been politically explosive for the agency... Grant guidelines... necessitate the implementation of an abstinence-based program rather than an abstinence-only program. This means that contraceptive information would be a part of the TEA-based HIV prevention education program."

Giving up the grant, however, "would allow the agency to put an end to an issue that appears to have few positive implications for the agency given the current atmosphere." But, Moses conceded, such a decision "may appear to be politically driven... The decision is made more difficult given the extent of the HIV and teen pregnancy problem in Texas and the critical need for health education programs generally." But Moses did make a decision, and submitted a terse letter to the CDC on November 2, informing the grants management division "that a workplan will not be submitted by the Texas Education Agency and we will not seek further funding for HIV prevention efforts from the CDC."

News of this decision broke approximately two weeks later; a slew of negative reactions ensued from educators' groups, liberal lawmakers, and others. A November 16 rally was held to urge him to reconsider his decision, and he was roundly criticized for not emerging from his office that day to meet a group of students. Letters to the editor, both pro and con, ran in newspapers for weeks, and Moses defended his actions in an op-ed piece in the Austin American-Statesman in early December.

"Overall, I think he's in a difficult position because I know the pressure he must be under from the right wing," said Cecile Richards, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that declared victory when Moses finally accepted the CDC grant months later.

In an interview with the Chronicle last week, Moses repeated that the CDC was aware of his initial concerns -- even if no one else was -- and that he simply needed some assurances, both about the agency's discretion over administration of the grant moneys and about constraints on curriculum that may interfere with new state law. He does not believe that his ultimate decision -- to submit a workplan to get the funds -- shows that he caved in to political pressure from a not-so-conservative faction.

"I do feel as though I have a responsibility to seek consensus and a comfort level, if you will, from as many parties as possible before moving on something that's real controversial," he said. "In my opinion, we needed to have something that assured us that a [particular] curriculum in the area of health and sex education was not going to be required.

"We were told verbally that one would not be required. My simple request was: Let's go ahead and receive that in writing. It may help some people who are less than comfortable with [the] grant see that in fact we are taking some steps to ensure that any moneys we receive are going to be spent consistent with [Section] 28.004 [on human sexuality education] of the new [state education] code."

Moses said that as a parent, he wanted his own children to be "educated about the things that will hurt them. I still believe with all my heart that the [decisions about the] teaching that is done, and how it is done, need to be made by parents, the teachers, the principals -- maybe the Sunday school teachers -- but the people who are closest to those children." Since the grant will be administrated through a Regional Education Service Center, not the TEA headquarters, and local districts can determine the curriculum, local control has presumably been achieved.

Ellen Sanchez, director of education for Planned Parenthood of Austin, said that parents are essential as a "values-check and source of support" for adolescents. But she believes that a state policy setting some guidelines for sexuality education "would have been better. That would give more support to some communities in need of it, to help them create programs that are truly helpful." Deciding what will be taught about sexuality and disease prevention "is going to be a local battle," Sanchez said. "It won't necessarily be resolved by what's best educationally, but what's politically comfortable. And sometimes that's the wrong decision."

Even those who privately criticize Moses as a thin-skinned naif who was simply not ready to be plunked down into the big pond don't deny that he still needs to be allowed to get used to the water. He seems to feel that his actions have been misconstrued in the media (he expressed reservations about whether the Chronicle would be fair to him), and that he hasn't received much good publicity about other decisions he has made. But that's how it is in the fishbowl. It's a lot different living inside it than it is looking in. As any fishbowl watcher would tell him: just swim.

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