Abbott Appoints New Education Commissioner
Education advocates criticized Morath for attempting to quietly privatize Dallas ISD
There are some clenched jaws in Texas education circles as Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed Dallas ISD trustee Mike Morath as the new Texas education commissioner, replacing the outgoing Michael Williams.
Normally, a trustee – or anyone with grassroots education policy experience – being appointed to such a post would be applauded. But Morath comes with such heavy baggage that fellow DISD trustee Bernadette Nutall refused to sit next to him in meetings. The biggest point of conflict was Morath's involvement in a 2014 attempt to turn DISD into a home rule district. This obscure section of Texas law basically removes a district from Texas Education Agency control, and allows it to set its own rules about standards, curriculum, and teacher salaries. The ultimately unsuccessful scheme was attacked by education advocates as an attempt to quietly privatize one of the state's largest ISDs. The idea was spearheaded by Morath (in direct opposition to the other eight members of the board), and its ground game was run by Support Our Public Schools – a pressure group paid for by hedge fund manager John Arnold's Action Now Initiative nonprofit. As if confirming fears among education advocates, Abbott used loaded language when he called Morath "a proven education reformer [who] will not accept the status quo in our schools."
Morath replaces outgoing Commissioner Williams, who started off on equally bad terms: When he was appointed in 2012, his sole qualification was that he was a former railroad commissioner and failed congressional candidate, and the Republican establishment wanted to give him a job. However, he leaves the job with better-than-average reviews. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said "he seemed to genuinely care," and noted that Williams gained a reputation for an open door approach to dealing with stakeholders. Importantly, he didn't presume he knew everything about education, and sought broad counsel. By contrast, Zarifis said, Morath "considers himself to be a firebrand, and he comes in with a confidence about what education should be about."
Texas American Federation of Teachers President Louis Malfaro said he doubts he and Morath will agree all the time, but after Williams' tenure as "a caretaker commissioner," he hopes Morath's reputation as a data maven will allow the case to be made for reforms that work, like community schools, rather than failed experiments like vouchers. As the federal government pulls back from its larger role in education policy, Malfaro said, "Commissioner Morath is coming in at a time when there's a real opportunity to break with the worst practices of the past."