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Who will fill the Texas Education Agency's top spot?

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Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott answers questions at TASA midwinter conference in Austin, Texas February 1st, 2011 Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott answers questions at TASA midwinter conference in Austin, Texas February 1st, 2011

by Morgan Smith

AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - Four months before he would announce his resignation, Robert Scott characterized his time as the state's top education official as four and a half years of being in "fight mode."

In just the past year, the head of the Texas Education Agency has been put at odds with figures as diverse as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond. And his job regularly requires him to balance the demands of state lawmakers, the governor's office and the educators at the state's approximately 1,200 traditional school districts and charter schools.

So who, when Scott steps down July 2, will want to take on the challenges of the position?

The education commissioner has "to put up with the Legislature during the session, and then all the stuff that the session assigns him, he's got to implement," said state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Public Education Committee. He added that he agreed with Scott, who has said the position is "grueling."

The agency is in the midst of developing a new school accountability system to go along with the standardized tests rolled out for the first time this spring. Its lawyers will defend the Texas school finance system this fall in court. In 2013, the TEA's leader will probably again be confronted with a dismal public education budget — after schools have already absorbed $5.4 billion in cuts from the last session.

Texas faces a fall deadline to apply for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Scott hasn't publicly stated his views on the matter — only that he is open to considering it — but the timing of his departure may mean the decision will be left to the governor's office. (When he visited Texas in March, Duncan met with Gov. Rick Perry on the subject.)

And there's yet another piece of unfinished business. In his January speech, as he apologized for the extent of the budget cuts to public education, saying they were "personal," Scott made a promise. He said he would not certify the ban on social promotion, which requires students in fifth and eighth grade to pass state standardized exams in order to graduate, unless the Legislature restored funding — which was all but zeroed out in the current budget — for remedial instruction under a program called the Student Success Initiative. This year, because schools are transitioning to the new testing system, the ban is not in effect. But it will be by the time the next Legislature is in session in 2013, meaning the choice will be in the next commissioner's hands.

Scott's successor will also inherit an agency whose morale may be at an all-time low. Last year, the TEA's budget was cut by nearly 40 percent budget cut and dropped a third of its staff. The past legislative session did little to dispel the perception that persists among educators that the agency is impossibly caught between the political demands of the governor's office and the needs of schools it oversees.

A number of its top officials are approaching retirement age, meaning that the next commissioner may need to find a way to attract — and keep — new staff.

"It all boils down to Perry," — and what he wants to accomplish with the appointment, said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the State Board of Education.

Steffany Duke, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the search for someone to fill the spot was ongoing. "The governor makes his decisions based on qualifications, and what's in the best interest of Texans, and anyone who applies he is going to take into consideration," she said.

With some overlap, those watching the governor's moves most closely fit into three loose factions: the superintendents, school board members and others who make up the education establishment; the homeschoolers, business groups, charter school and voucher supporters in the reform movement; and, of course, the political class.

There might be an ideal candidate who appeals, or is at least palatable, to all three groups. But in all likelihood, the governor is going to need to decide which group he's most willing to disappoint with his choice.

The job could appeal to state Sen. Florence Shapiro — and as the outgoing chairwoman of the Senate education committee, the Plano Republican's name naturally surfaces as a possible choice. In developing the new accountability system, she would be in a position to fully implement, down to the rules and regulations, legislation she passed in 2009. She is also a favorite of the business community, which has been vocal in urging the agency to move more quickly.

"Texas should have articulated a new accountability system six months ago, before school districts put preliminary budgets in play and established their personnel evaluation systems for the coming school year," said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

"Commissioner Scott deserves to take his star turn. Then we should move quickly to a new commissioner who, with full confidence of the Governor, can forge agreement on a new accountability system organized around settled law and with broader buy-in. That needs to happen yesterday."

Shapiro, he said, would be a "phenomenal" choice. But Shapiro, who did not return a request for comment, may be ready for private life — she has accepted a position at the higher education consulting firm Academic Partnerships.

Before Scott's tenure, Perry and his predecessor, George W. Bush, tended to pick either a current or former school board member or superintendent for the job. (When Scott, a former Perry staffer who has a law degree and an extensive policy background in education, took over the agency in 2007, he became the first TEA head since 1995 without a background as either.)

It's possible Perry might revert to that tradition. There are several current or recently retired superintendents with the kind of credentials — experience in school districts of varying sizes and types, service on statewide education boards, and good relationships with business and political groups — that might make them attractive candidates for the position. Former Superintendent Richard Middleton of San Antonio's North East ISD and Garland ISD Superintendent Curtis Culwell are among the handful that fit that profile. There's also Robert Duron, who recently moved to the agency from his post in the San Antonio Independent School District.

But the political demands of the post may not be appealing to a superintendent — and the pay might not be either. The salaries of the administrators running the state's top school districts in many cases significantly outpace the commissioner's.

And as Ratliff pointed out, it may be difficult to work for a governor who is not viewed as particularly supportive of public schools — unless that meant a turnaround in policy. "[The governor] could probably recruit a top-caliber superintendent who would say ‘Yeah I'm ready to usher in that change,'" Ratliff said. "If he wants to usher in more with less, keep cutting the agency, keep squeezing every ounce out of money out of the public school system, I don't see a lot of superintendents wanting to step up for that role."

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