|Gov. Greg Abbott has picked Dallas Independent School District Trustee Mike Morath to be Texas’ education commissioner. ( April 2015 photo by Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)|
AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed Dallas Independent School District Trustee Mike Morath, an admittedly nerdy businessman who wants to use data to transform schools, as Texas education commissioner.
Abbott said Morath has been a “change agent” during his four years on the Dallas school board and will bring an innovative spirit to the commissioner’s job. Morath will oversee the Texas Education Agency and the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools.
“The state of Texas is exceptional, and our education system must be too,” Abbott said in a statement.
In Dallas, Morath raised hackles for poring through state education laws and latching onto a never-used 1995 provision that he said Dallas should invoke to turn itself into a “home-rule charter” district.
While that would have freed the district from state mandates and perhaps emboldened conservative activists to institute radical changes, the effort fizzled in January. A school board-appointed commission voted 10-5 against the idea, despite strenuous efforts by Morath, who helped create the main group behind the push.
Morath, who did not respond to requests for an interview, said in remarks issued by Abbott’s office that he intends as state commissioner to bring “a focus on improving student outcomes.” He praised teachers and said he would support them as they strive to improve their skills.
His goal, he said, is “to ensure Texas becomes the No. 1 school system in the nation.”
Morath, 38, is a numbers whiz who excelled academically, earning his business degree in 2 1/2 years at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He spent part of his early years in a western Virginia coal-mining town, where his parents were dissatisfied with the schools, according a 2014 profile in D magazine. As the family prepared to move to the Dallas area, his mother pestered Texas Education Agency employees, who recommended the Garland school district, the profile said.
At Garland High School, the slightly built, bespectacled Morath didn’t play football. But he ingratiated himself with coaches by writing software that analyzed each game’s play-calling trends and results.
“Needless to say,” he told the magazine, “Super Nerd was very popular with the cheerleaders.”
After returning to Dallas from Washington, Morath built a tech company, Minute Menu Systems. It produced software to help manage a $2.5 billion-a year federal child nutrition program, Abbott noted.
Morath sold the software company and is now chairman of Morath Investments.
While Morath’s non-traditional background makes some school groups nervous — a career educator hasn’t run TEA in more than a decade — he has disarmed some skeptics.
Walter Stroup, a University of Texas education professor who is an outspoken critic of high-stakes testing, exchanged emails with Morath recently. The academic said he was pleased Morath was so interested.
“It could be just what we need, to have a commissioner willing to roll up his sleeves and dig into what the numbers can tell us relative to the inner workings of the state’s accountability system,” Stroup said.
Most education groups, who only know Morath through news clippings, reacted warily, saying they want to see where he lands on testing, charter schools and so-called “school choice” options.
“He’s in charge of public schools for our state, so we hope he will put them first,” said Rob D’Amico, spokesman for the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators, another statewide teachers’ group, complained of Morath’s ties to the “pro-privatization crowd.” It noted that Houston billionaire and former Enron trader John Arnold, a graduate of Hillcrest High School in Dallas, provided major support for Morath’s home-rule push. The association noted that Morath’s education credentials consist of once teaching computer science briefly at Garland High, and four years on the Dallas school board.
Michael MacNaughton of the watchdog group Dallas Friends of Public Education said he hopes “Mr. Morath understands that data does not define students,” who need to think critically and not just learn to “fill bubbles on state tests.”
Republican education experts and others rushed to vouch for Morath.
Former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige of Houston said he’s delighted with the GOP governor’s pick.
“Choosing Mike Morath … is a gift to the school-aged children of Texas,” he said. The move “is a signal to Texas’ families that the status quo in education is no longer adequate for Texans.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Morath “a great choice.”
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a supporter of the home-rule charter idea, praised Morath’s intellect and “passion for children of all backgrounds.” (The mayor’s office is nonpartisan, but Rawlings identifies himself as a Democrat.)
Morath’s seat on the DISD board covers parts of North Dallas and East Dallas. It will be filled in a special election, the date of which will be chosen by the board.
Staff Writers Holly K. Hacker, Eva Marie-Ayala and Jeffrey Weiss in Dallas contributed to this report.
Updated at 4:23 p.m.: Revised to include comments from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, statewide education groups, North Texans familiar with Morath and an Abbott spokesman.
AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed Dallas Independent School District Trustee Mike Morath to be Texas’ next education commissioner.
Abbott said Morath has been a “change agent” during his four years on the Dallas school board, and will bring an innovative spirit to the job of commissioner, where he will oversee the Texas Education Agency and the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools.
“The state of Texas is exceptional, and our education system must be too,” Abbott said in a statement. “A proven education reformer, Mike Morath will not accept the status quo in our schools. He is committed to innovative solutions that will empower Texas principals, teachers and students to strive for the highest in education excellence.”
Noting that Morath has led mountain-climbing treks at some of the earth’s tallest peaks, the Republican governor said the Dallas businessman now will “help Texas education reach new heights.”
Morath said in a statement he intends to bring “a focus on improving student outcomes,” and spoke in praise of teachers, whom he said he plans to support as they improve their skills.
“I look forward to advancing that quality, as well as student outcomes, to ensure Texas becomes the number one school system in the nation,” he said.
Abbott said at the Dallas district, Morath has helped institute a merit pay system for teachers, improved graduation rates, rising scores on fourth-grade math tests, better performance by African American and Hispanic students on Advanced Placement exams and healthier bond ratings and bank balances.
DISD’s “public school choice program” has helped “transform underutilized and low performing schools into open enrollment schools with a specialized focus,” Abbott said. “Those schools have seen enrollment spikes from high parent demand and gains in student achievement.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Morath “a great choice.” Patrick, who headed the Senate Education Committee while a senator in the 2013 legislative session, said he’s worked closely with Morath “to develop education reforms that have improved our schools and expanded school choice.” He said he looks forward to future collaborations. Patrick has been a staunch proponent of giving parents more choices, such as vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, if they are dissatisfied with their children’s current public schools. That has put the Republican lieutenant governor sharply at odds with many teacher groups, Democrats and even rural Republicans.
But the Association of Texas Professional Educators, a statewide teachers’ group, clearly is wary of Morath.
“His selection sends another signal that Abbott is very interested in the agenda of the education reform and pro-privatization crowd,” it said in a release.
The group said Morath “gained notoriety” when he supported last year’s failed effort by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and others to turn Dallas into a “home-rule” district. The effort, which would’ve been a first in Texas, was pushed by Houston billionaire and former Enron trader John Arnold and his Arnold Foundation, the teachers’ group recounted. It also noted that Morath serves on the advisory board of Texans for Education Reform, an Arnold-backed group pushing for “school choice” measures, including faster action to remedy failing schools, though not the traditional voucher proposals.
The association’s release hinted that Abbott had to pump up Morath’s public education bona fides. It noted that in his announcement of the appointment, Abbott said that “Morath is a product of Texas public schools” and that he once briefly taught computer science at Garland High School “during a school year when the previous teacher unexpectedly resigned.”
Rawlings and Texans for Education Reform leader Florence Shapiro, though, praised Abbott’s appointment.
In a statement, the mayor called it “a farsighted and smart choice for the children of our state.” While the Dallas district “will lose a great trustee,” the selection will help schools statewide, Rawlings said. “Mike’s passion for children of all backgrounds combined with his intellect makes him perfect for this job,” he said.
Shapiro, a former GOP state senator from Plano, called it “a visionary appointment.” She said “Mike makes academic achievement a priority at Dallas ISD and works tirelessly to assure that decisions focus on what is best for children in our public schools.”
Michael MacNaughton, founding member of the watchdog group Dallas Friends of Public Education, though, suggested Morath is too partial to high-stakes testing, which lawmakers have rolled back in recent years.
“Texas could do worse,” MacNaughton said in an email. “It is my hope that Mr. Morath understands that data does not define students and that experienced, highly trained teachers are critical in matriculating students who can think critically, not simply fill bubbles on state tests.”
Morath, who sold a child-nutrition software company, was a strong supporter of former superintendent Mike Miles, who quit in June.
Dallas district board president Eric Cowan complimented Morath’s work, saying he “brought balanced and positive leadership to our board and will be missed.”
In this October post, I reported Morath was on Abbott’s short list of possible commissioners. At the time, though, Morath said he had not been contacted by the governor’s office.
His selection surprised some education insiders because only last month, as my colleague Tawnell Hobbs reported in this story, Abbott named him to lead a new commission that will recommend improvements for student assessment and school accountability systems.
The 15-member Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability must present its recommendations by Sept. 1. Presumably, Morath will step down and the governor will tap someone else for that role.
Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch confirmed that Morath will be replaced. Hirsch said that the panel’s recommendations will go to the state education commissioner for review.
On the Dallas school board, Morath represents District 2, which covers sections of North Dallas and Near East Dallas. A DISD release said his resignation will trigger a special election because more than nine months remain in his current term, his second. The board will determine a date for the special election, the district said.
Source: The Dallas Morning News >>
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