Citing a yearslong long-distance relationship with his wife, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams informed Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday morning that he will step down from his position effective Jan. 1.
“During the course of my career in public service, I have held two statewide positions since 1999 — first as a member of the Texas Railroad Commission and then as commissioner of education. Both of those are based in Austin,” Williams wrote in a letter to Abbott. “While carrying out my responsibilities, I have kept my house in Arlington and managed to maintain a long-distance partnership with my wife. But after more than 16 years of weekend commuting, I feel it is finally time to simply head home.”
Williams, a Republican, was appointed to head the Texas Education Agency by then-Gov. Rick Perry in August 2012. The agency oversees the state’s public schools, where more than 5 million students are enrolled.
In his letter to Abbott, Williams praised the freshman governor for championing various legislation during this year’s legislative session, including an $118 million pre-K grant program that passed despite opposition from the far-right faction of the GOP.
The Midland native also cited legislation that will re-establish new math and reading academies for teachers and create “multi-campus innovation zones” that will exempt qualifying schools from certain state and local requirements so they can experiment with new forms of instruction. Finally, he praised state leaders for “again broadening the choices and information provided to Texas parents to help them make informed decisions about their children’s education,” referencing a new system he advocated for that will assign A-through-F letter grades to individual districts and — after the 2015 session — school campuses.
“I have no doubt that your commitment to public education will be key to maintaining our state’s position as a national leader for many years to come,” Williams wrote.
Abbott returned the praise in a statement, saying “Commissioner Williams is a public servant dedicated to elevating our state’s education system to be the best in the nation.”
“I am grateful for his leadership and steadfast advocacy on behalf of our students, and I wish him the best of luck in all future endeavors,” he said.
Williams’ most recent high-profile act as commissioner was increasing the number of questions students will have to answer correctly on the state’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams, albeit at a slower pace than planned.
His resignation comes amid an ongoing standoff between the state and federal government over the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act — President George W. Bush’s signature domestic policy.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education granted the Lone Star State’s request for an extension to its waiver from the act, which — if implemented fully — would have labeled as failing almost every school district in the state. But the education department also placed the state on “high-risk status” because it has not met one of the conditions of the waiver — implementing a statewide teacher evaluation system that would, for the first time, account for student scores on standardized exams.
The education department rejected the state’s proposal for a new system in January in part because it included no mechanisms for ensuring that every school district would use it — something Williams has consistently said he will not do, meaning the state could be in jeopardy of losing its waiver and, with it, a sizable amount of federal education funding.
“My position on this front has not, and will not, change,” Williams said at the time.
Williams took over leadership of the state education agency the year after lawmakers reduced the public education budget by $5.4 billion to help balance a post-recession budget shortfall, sparking an ongoing lawsuit against the state by nearly two-thirds of the state’s school districts.
Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said the agency “faced many challenges under (Williams’) watch, as the legislative majority slashed the state education budget while excessive standardized testing drew the wrath of parents and educators.”
The association “urges the governor to listen to the vast majority of Texans and appoint a commissioner who will advocate for a greater investment in our public schools and policies that will end punitive standardized testing that robs teachers and students of the time they need for real teaching and learning,” Candelaria said.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/10/15/education-commissioner-williams-resigning-years-en/.