Time to restructure TEA for better public accountability

Photo by Shannan Muskopf

Whether we are teachers, students, parents or taxpayers, what happens in Texas classrooms has a tremendous impact on the present and future of the state. However, troublingly, the responsibility for overseeing Texas' vast education sector – and its 5 million students – is concentrated in one person: the commissioner of education.

The commissioner, appointed by the governor, heads the Texas Education Agency, which oversees pre-kindergarten through high school education across the state. The agency is responsible for more than 1,200 public school districts, open enrollment charter schools, juvenile justice districts, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Texas School for the Deaf. TEA’s decisions affect millions of students and the agency distributes millions of taxpayer dollars. Because the TEA is governed by a single commissioner, the agency's crucial decisions aren’t deliberated in public and are not subject to the same lobbying restrictions applicable to other state agencies.

Texas students and educators need, and public education deserves, more transparency at the agency. That's why the TEA needs a three-member board commission.

Recent events highlight what happens when an agency of this importance is allowed to make critical but questionable decisions with no oversight. The TEA’s cap on the number of students that could receive special education services at 8.5 percent  effectively denied appropriate education and accommodations to thousands of students with special needs over many years. And at the end of last year, the TEA was forced to end a no-bid contract to mine special education student data after receiving widespread criticism from educators, parents and advocacy groups.

The lack of contract oversight at the agency is an ongoing concern. The TEA has previously entered into contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars with testing companies to administer state standardized tests whose value and validity have been widely criticized. From 2000 to 2015, TEA spent over $1.14 billion in taxpayer money on state standardized tests. Those testing dollars equate to spending $2 every second of every day during that time. 

Establishing a three-member commission at the TEA is a nonpartisan solution to the very real problem of an agency in which one person currently makes critical decisions with the input of a select few advisors, including vendors who stand to benefit from the agency’s choices. Decisions about spending taxpayer dollars and, more importantly, decisions that affect our children’s education and future should be subject to detailed, thoughtful consideration, public input and decision-making made in a public forum. Under a three-member commission, the TEA would have to make decisions in open meetings after public deliberations, and its decisions could be appealed to the courts.

Most state agencies in Texas that oversee significant public interest issues are led by at least three commissioners. The Public Utility Commission oversees electric and telecommunications utility matters; the Texas Workforce Commission oversees employment issues; the Railroad Commission oversees oil and gas regulation; the Texas Natural Resources Commission oversees water and air quality issues – and all of these agencies are led by three-member panels of commissioners. Under Texas law, deliberations and major decisions under the purview of these agencies must be held in public, and there are ex parte prohibitions against lobbying by parties with a direct interest. 

Texas needs to safeguard the future of public education by ensuring transparency and accountability at the TEA. Under a three-member commission, the agency's decision-making process would be more accessible, more transparent and more accountable. That’s a good start!

Susan Bergen Schultz

Attorney and mediator

Dineen Majcher

Former president, TAMSA