New Texas Education Chief Mike Morath: Texas Public Schools Aren't Hated, Just Misunderstood

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Monday, Dallas ISD trustee Mike Morath was appointed Texas Education Commissioner by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott touted Morath's reform work within Dallas ISD, their shared commitment to early childhood education and Morath's mountain-climbing experience in announcing the appointment. Basically everyone, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and former School Board President and Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, were effusive in their praise of the guy currently representing East Dallas' District 2 on the Dallas ISD board. 

All of that being said, Morath just inherited one of the toughest jobs in Texas. When we were finally able to catch up with the new commish on the phone Wednesday, we asked him about his priorities for the Texas Education Agency, how he feels about his time at Dallas ISD and what he expects it'll be like to represent the public schools of a state that can often seem hostile to the very idea of public education.

DO: Obviously, this wasn't a surprise for you, but how do you feel about becoming the Texas Education Commissioner?

Morath: I'm excited about the opportunity to serve kids throughout the state. I think we've accomplished a fair amount of positive changes for kids in terms of student outcomes in Dallas and I hope to do the same thing using TEA statewide.

DO: What do you think the TEA does well now and what are the most immediate changes you're looking to make at the TEA?

Morath: You know, I have so much to learn that I don't know if I can give you a great answer on that. What I want to do is spend the next 90 days interacting with folks both within the agency and around the state, the superintendents who consume TEA technical support service and regulatory oversight, legislators who set the rules and that sort of thing. I think I'll have a much better picture of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats after I get through that transition plan. Initially, the core priorities are supporting teachers and teaching, working through the new legislative mandates with regard to the accountability system and focusing on the agency itself.

DO: Are you worried, in a state like Texas that has seen some of its leadership exhibit some hostility toward public schools, about your role being in charge of all the public schools?

Morath: I'm not sure that I buy into the view that our elected leaders are hostile to public schools. I think that there are a lot of people in this state that want to see better outcomes for kids, desperately. I think you hear a lot of that frustration from leaders throughout the state and, frankly, I think you hear a lot of that frustration from parents as well. It's incumbent on us to try to give our kids the best chance at success that's possible. Some of that frustration comes through and I think some people interpret it incorrectly. I've yet to meet anybody who doesn't believe that education is the force multiplier, who believes that it isn't the way that America prospers. There's a lot of disagreement on how to accomplish that, but I just don't believe the hype.

DO: So, for you, the problem is making public schools better, it's not fighting for public schools as a concept?

Morath: It's weird to me that anybody fights for some sort of static institution. Public schools exist to serve kids, they don't exist to serve the institution. Now, we have to have strong institutions within which to deliver results for kids, but we also have to be flexible and recognize where there's strength and where there's weakness.

DO: How do feel about what you've accomplished at Dallas ISD over the last four years and where you're leaving things?

Morath: I'm happy about some of the core structural changes that have occurred but the challenge is so large that certainly one trustee can't change the world, but a group of like-minded people dedicated to helping kids, they really can. I think you've seen some of that but there are still miles to go to give our kids an equal shake at success in this country.

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