Moses Speaks

Down from the Mountain:

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses granted the Chronicle about 45 minutes of his time last week for a Q & A session on his short tenure as commissioner and the recent controversies his appointment has brought about. Here are the highlights of our interview with him.

The Austin Chronicle: You are compared with your predecessor, just as your successor will be compared with you. Lionel "Skip" Meno tended to view the agency as an agent of change, and he networked groups of people together. What about you?

Commissioner Mike Moses: First, I have a lot of admiration for Commissioner Meno [and others before him]. I think each person brings their own persona and their own style of leadership to the job. I would like to think I have some problem-solving capabilities, that I can be a consensus-builder. I think I have some understanding of the arena in which we work -- and it is both an educational arena and, at times, a political arena. It requires, I guess, some understanding of the philosophical issues that drive people...

You know, we're redefining the Texas Education Agency. Commissioner Meno was probably correct in that he saw the agency as directors of change... In response to Senate Bill 1, we have to change the culture of the agency. Perhaps then, we can be better agents of change ourselves. That includes downsizing, that includes maybe looking at how we interact with people in the field, how we interact with the business community, how we interact with the media, how we interact with parents and the public. We're making some progress in that direction, but I'm sure like all other commissioners, including my predecessors -- and as you say, my successors -- there will be a continuous, ongoing challenge in the area of communications. Because there's so many different constituencies there.

AC: Under your leadership of the "new" TEA, what is the agency's relationship to Texas' 1,000-plus school districts?

MM: Well, I think that school districts are beginning to see maybe a lessening of some requirements. I don't think it's something they're going to see instantaneously... You may have caught the article in Education Week that reported a couple of school superintendents in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area are saying that they saw us as less intrusive at this moment, and we have also become somewhat more responsive. One of the things that I have encouraged our staff to be mindful of is that 90% of all our communications are via the telephone. Our telephone personalities do matter.

AC: So the way you're being less intrusive is by being not just permissive, but less proscriptive?

MM: I think we're still permissive in many areas. We are not trying to prescribe how children should be taught, how school districts should operate, how many minutes should be in the class period, when the public address announcements should be made. Those kinds of things were in the code at one time.

AC: Was there another way of handling the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] grant?

MM: Well, you always look back at those situations and say that's possible. I said at the very beginning that it wasn't to be obstinate. I hate to think that I'm hard-headed. In hindsight, there may have been another way to handle it.

I think that this agency and the state board had wrestled with health textbooks, wrestled with ESR curricula -- Commissioner Meno had suspended that particular grant. If those dollars were going to be taken, then I think we needed to get to a point where people could be comfortable with the decisions being made and why they were made.

I said earlier that the arena in which we operate is educational but it is also sometimes political. And sometimes, I think it requires some care be given to people who have differing and varying viewpoints, even though I may not agree with some of them. 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.

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 that kind of 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 [dealing with human sexuality education] of the [revised education] code. And that was really what I wanted all along.

I said publicly and in writing that as the parent of two children, I want my children educated about the things that will hurt them. Obviously, HIV infection and AIDS are deadly and tragic diseases. And we need to make sure that children are properly taught about those kinds of diseases and about what prevents those diseases. I still believe with all my heart that the [decisions on 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.... Was there a different way to have done it? Maybe.... Do I like all the attention and publicity? Obviously not. I'm obviously in a position where you like to please as many people as you can. But you know on given days, you're not going to do that.

AC: But you first said to the CDC that the agency wouldn't be submitting a workplan, rather than telling them you had certain conditions.

MM: Those conversations were taking place via the telephone. Perhaps they should have been put in writing.... We were also interested in minimum agency time in terms of the administration of the grant as well.... I wanted to really make sure that was not something that was adminstratively going to cause us to have to do another division of labor here. I could have probably, perhaps, communicated that in writing.

I don't make any pleas here, other than to say that that was occurring when I was about eight months into the job. And I say to you again: I'm probably still learning, and I hope I always am learning about issues and how to deal with them.

AC: What about your not meeting with a group of students outside your office on November 16, when a rally was held to protest your first decision?

MM: Well, I didn't think that particular forum was appropriate for a meeting. I later met with some people who came up that day. I don't think you can sit down with 20 or 30 people and have a constructive conversation.... 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.... I understood their right to make their feeling known in the manner that they chose to do that. And I tried to at that moment, I guess, to maintain some appropriate decorum and dignity and then deal with the situation in a setting that would probably lend itself to more constructive negotiations.

AC: Are you taken aback by the attention you've gotten from the Capitol press -- and do you feel you've been treated unfairly?

MM: Oh, I guess anybody that's a public official could make that statement. I don't know if that's a cop-out. I think everyone that's in a setting like this is interested in being understood and perceived fairly.

I'm a native Texan. I care about Texas. I'm a daddy, a husband. I don't know that there's anything very special about me. I think I'm a just person who's just been very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and lucky to be given some responsibility...

The attention doesn't really surprise me. I think the issues do sometimes become emotional. And there isn't much gray. It seems to be either black or white.... It doesn't mean that you give in to your constituency.

AC: You've said that you didn't cave in on the CDC grant.

MM: [I've been accused of making it political], and if I did, I've managed to make people on both sides mad, so that probably wasn't very bright.

AC: Conservative lawmakers saw this as favorable to their position on sexuality education.

MM: I don't think they would have, [if] a position had [not] been taken by another group of lawmakers. Again, the political arena may make those kinds of things happen.... What I'm trying to do is be consistent...

As you know, there were a lot of people critical of Academics 2000, also known as Goals 2000. I publicly supported it, I publicly endorsed it, I publicly recommended it. And quite frankly, I didn't find some of the same critics of the [rejection of the] CDC money saying, "[Accepting Goals 2000 money] is a good step." I made that endorsement with the strict proviso that we would not be told how to spend those dollars.

AC: Well, Goals 2000 is a more arcane issue than health education.

MM: I understand that. But I'm just saying the principle still applies. There was $29 million dollars at stake [with Goals 2000]. This [CDC] grant involved $460,000.... I think I acted consistently with Academics 2000, as I did with CDC...

AC: What about the Texas Family Association's recent mail-in campaign -- targeted at you and SBOE (State Board of Education) Chairman Jack Christie -- asking you to uphold "the fundamental rights of parents"? [Note: The campaign is part of an appeal of a court case involving the release of standardized test materials.]

MM: I think that parents definitely have a fundamental right in the upbringing of their children. I also think that in respecting the parents' fundamental right in the upbringing of their children, the school's right to have a code of conduct, a dress code, grading guidelines, rules for safety -- for the common good -- only makes sense. And I think that the school's right has to be respected in that area.

AC: But their argument is that the schools' rights, and therefore, the government's, prevails over theirs.

MM: I think the plaintiffs in the [court] case have acted in good faith. And I really don't think that they themselves would try to argue against a school district's code of conduct. However, if you leave that kind of decision in case law without questioning it, it doesn't mean somebody else couldn't come along and raise that issue. It's a very legal and very complex argument...

What the attorney general has done is gone back and redrafted the brief, and has recognized that parents do in fact have a fundamental right in the upbringing of their children. But when these children are presented to the schoolhouse door, there are some rights that schools have as well to ensure the safety and common good of all the children within the campus. That's what needs to be resolved here. n

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