On the first day of school for many Texas public school students, Gov. Rick Perry appointed former Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams on Monday to be the state's top education official.
The first African-American to be named state education commissioner, Williams, 59, who has a home in Arlington, served as an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. He will assume the post Saturday.
In that post Williams -- the son of two former schoolteachers -- will take the helm at the Texas Education Agency at a tumultuous time, including legal challenges to how the state finances its schools, a shortage of state dollars and a new controversial standardized testing system.
While Williams has not been involved in education policy as a state official, Perry appointed Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds to be his chief deputy. Reynolds has been at the TEA since 2007, providing oversight in the areas of curriculum, assessment and accountability, among other things.
"High standards and accountable public schools are essential to our state's future success, and no two people understand that better than Michael and Lizzette," Perry said in a statement Monday.
"Michael's pioneering leadership in both public and private sectors, combined with Lizzette's nearly two decades of public education experience guiding and implementing statewide reforms, create a powerful and dynamic team that will fortify our state's public education system," Perry said.
Williams was unavailable for interviews, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said.
Known for his trademark bow ties and charismatic speeches, Williams replaces Robert Scott, who stepped down as commissioner earlier this summer after five years on the job and 18 years with the agency. He earned $186,300 a year as commissioner.
Scott, the longest-serving education commissioner in two decades, turned in his resignation a few months after apologizing for the more than $5 billion in cuts to school funding made by state lawmakers. Reynolds replaces Todd Webster, who is stepping down Friday.
The state's education commissioner carries a hefty workload and oversees the TEA and the state's 1,200 school districts and charter schools.
Williams' appointment was met with both praise and criticism. He was chosen from a pool of candidates that reportedly included state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, and state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.
Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, lauded Perry's pick.
"TAB applauds the appointment of Michael Williams, who is a rock solid conservative, as the state's new Education Commissioner," Hammond said. "We look forward to working with him to maintain and improve Texas' world class accountability system. "In his many years of public service he's shown a steadfast commitment to the people of Texas. We believe he is uniquely qualified to lead perhaps the most important agency in state government," Hammond said.
State School Board member Pat Hardy of Weatherford said she is impressed with Williams' credentials, particularly his work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Texas, where he served as honorary chairman.
"That has the welfare of children at heart so he has some experience working with children in that regard," Hardy said.
Hardy also said she was pleased with the promotion of Reynolds, who can provide continuity at the agency's top.
Not all the reaction to Williams' appointment was positive, with some questioning his education credentials given the challenges on school finance lawsuit and budget constraints.
Steven Poole, executive director of the Fort Worth-based United Educators Association, said the state faces big education issues in the upcoming Legislature and said he hopes Williams will reach out and work with those with background in public education.
He said he hope Williams will "really take the time to listen to those who are in the schools educating our kids."
Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker issued a strongly worded statement expressing her displeasure with Perry's pick.
"The Texas State Teachers Association is disappointed that Gov. Rick Perry -- at a pivotal time for Texas public schools -- didn't choose an education professional as the next State Commissioner of Education," Haecker's statement said.
Williams was appointed assistant secretary of education for civil rights in 1990 by Bush, was deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement at the Treasury Department and served as special assistant to Attorney General Richard Thornburgh in the late 1980s.
Through the years, his work has included serving as a prosecutor in the Reagan administration's Justice Department, as general counsel for the Republican Party of Texas and as chairman of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission.
He has also served on the board of directors for the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and the Rolling Hills Country Club, both in Arlington.
Williams was raised in Midland and graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1971. He has received three degrees from the University of Southern California -- a bachelor's, a master's and a law degree.
Williams and his wife, Donna, moved to Arlington in 1993, buying a house in 1995 that they still own. At the time, Williams worked as an attorney for Haynes and Boone.
Gov. George W. Bush appointed him in 1988 to the Railroad Commission, which oversees the state's natural gas and oil industry, and he was re-elected in 2000, 2002 and 2008. He was the first black to hold a statewide elected position in the state.
He left the commission last year, first to run for the U.S. Senate. Eventually, he ran for the 25th Congressional District but he lost that bid in May, when Weatherford car dealer Roger Williams and retired Army veteran Wes Riddle of Gatesville headed to a July 31 runoff.
Roger Williams ultimately won the GOP nomination for the post.
Anna M. Tinsley,