CHARLES MILLER is that rare combination: a maverick and an insider. The 62-year-old is an integral part of the business and political power structure in Houston and in state government, yet his public profile is so low that it is practically invisible. He has no training in education, no advanced degrees, and no experience as a teacher, an administrator, or a school board member, yet the past three Texas governors—first Bill Clements, then Ann Richards, and now George W. Bush—have each sought his help in solving the seemingly intractable problems that face our public schools. Through it all, Miller has worked consistently for two goals: local control and accountability. The result of his efforts is that Texas schools have, slowly and with little fanfare, been changed so dramatically that we find ourselves on the eve of important, positive reforms in our school system for the first time in twenty years.
Miller’s own education hardly followed the normal pattern. In 1950, when he was sixteen years old, he hitchhiked to Austin from his parents’ modest home in Galveston to attend the University of Texas. He put himself through school at first by working and later by earning scholarships and playing poker and bridge. “In every case,” he remembers today, “I had my best academic years when I was winning money at cards and my worst academic years when I was on scholarship.” He played with the legendary bridge master Oswald Jacoby and was poised to compete internationally—but, he says, “When I realized I could make more money investing than playing cards, I quit.” In the years since, he has founded and directed a number of successful pension management firms and mutual funds.
The governors have appointed Miller to a series of task forces on education whose stated purpose was to work on school funding. But over time he came to see in the turmoil over financing an opportunity for deep structural reforms to be passed without a lot of contention in the Legislature. The decentralization of power from the state to local districts, the draining of power from the contentious state board of education, and most recently the development of the governor’s reading initiative are all programs and reforms that he has worked to bring about.
Of all the changes, he believes the “big sea change” was the state-wide system of accountability passed by the Legislature in 1993. “Now accountability starts with an individual school and goes right up the line, straight to the governor,” he says. “The point is not to punish, but to change behavior. When people know they are being held accountable, they do things differently.” Because of Charles Miller, Texas schools will be getting report cards as well as giving them.