This appointment had been rumored for some time, so it was hardly a surprise. Michael Williams has a slim history in the education area, except for serving in the Department of Education during the George H. W. Bush administration and serving on the board of a Catholic school. He faces a steep learning curve in a Texas Education Agency that is a stripped-down version of what it used to be, going into a session that has a long list of education issues on the table.
One of the most important items on the agenda is whether testing is out of control. Perry is a strong advocate of accountability, which is based upon standardized tests. The Texas Association of Business, under Bill Hammond, is another advocate. Some business groups say that they won’t support more funding for education if the accountability system is weakened. I believe that this issue will come up for a vote this session, and if it does, I think Hammond may lose. Outgoing commissioner Robert Scott turned against standardized testing last session, and many parents have turned against it–the mantra being that there is too much “teaching to the test”–and it’s going to be hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. (You can read my August column about Scott’s departure and his view of testing here.) Williams is also going to find himself in the middle of a big fight over school vouchers. He is there to serve the governor, not the schools.
Perry has all but officially announced for governor in 2014. That race won’t be a cinch given that his negatives are sky high, but it could shut the door on Greg Abbott and the rest of the would-be field. It also means his sights are really set on 2016, when Obama’s second term would expire, and Romney would be but a memory. (I’m not calling the presidential race for Obama, just putting the pieces of the puzzle together for what Perry needs to happen.) Perry is about to become Barack Obama’s biggest fan, for if Romney wins the presidency, all of Perry’s efforts will go for naught. The looming voucher fight is a signal that Perry will turn even harder to the right as he prepares for another race. Next up after vouchers: changing ERS from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.
One fly in that ointment is that the 2016 Republican field will be much stronger than the current one (Ryan, Rubio, Jeb Bush, Jindal, Daniels, Christie), and Perry still has plenty of scars and YouTube moments that voters are going to remember. I don’t expect Michael Williams to set the world on fire as education commissioner, but he is very popular and very well known in Republican circles and would be an asset to Perry as a surrogate in a presidential campaign.