Politics & Government

Michael Williams stepping down as Texas Education Agency chief

Michael Williams
Michael Williams Courtesy

Michael Williams says that after years of working in Austin — guiding the Texas Education Agency and serving on the Texas Railroad Commission — it’s time to come home.

That’s why Williams, a Republican and the first African-American to be named state education commissioner, said he turned in his resignation letter Thursday to Gov. Greg Abbott.

“While carrying out my responsibilities, I have kept my house in Arlington and managed to maintain a long-distance partnership with my wife,” the 62-year-old known for his trademark bow-ties and charismatic speeches wrote in the letter.

“But after more than 16 years of weekend commuting, I feel it is finally time to simply head home.”

Williams, the son of two former schoolteachers, has worked in Austin for 16 years — as Texas Education Commissioner since 2012 and on the Texas Railroad Commission from 1999 to 2011.

He said he doesn’t know what the next step will be — and that’s OK.

“I don’t want to engage in thinking about the next career move while I am still on the taxpayer’s dime,” he told the Star-Telegram. “In the course of my life, I’ve been blessed and opportunities have come available. I hope I’ll be blessed again and another opportunity will present itself.”

He did say he doesn’t “ever expect to be on a ballot again” and believes he will end up working in the private sector after he steps down as commissioner of education on Jan. 1.

Abbott was quick to thank Williams for his service.

“Commissioner Williams is a public servant dedicated to elevating our state’s education system to be the best in the nation,” Abbott said Thursday. “I am grateful for his leadership and steadfast advocacy on behalf of our students, and I wish him the best of luck in all future endeavors.”

Time in Austin

During his tenure, Williams faced challenges ranging from implementing a new standardized test to dealing with the fallout from the Legislature’s significant cuts to public school funding.

Now, he said, more challenges await the new commissioner.

“Texas is poised to usher in a new level of high-quality Pre-K education, as well as bring greater flexibility and innovation to our school districts,” he wrote to Abbott. “You have worked to assure the return of valuable literacy and math academies as well as other supports for our teachers.

“Finally, we are again broadening the choices and information provided to Texas parents to help them make informed decisions about their children’s education.”

Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria was among those wishing Williams well and urging Abbott to make the right choice for Williams’ successor.

“The Texas State Teachers Association urges the governor to listen to the vast majority of Texans and appoint a commissioner who will advocate for a greater investment in our public schools and policies that will end punitive standardized testing that robs teachers and students of the time they need for real teaching and learning,” Candelaria said,

Political past

Williams was appointed assistant secretary of education for civil rights in 1990 by President George H.W. 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 served on countless boards and commissions, including the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children and the Southern Regional Education Board.

He is a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and the Rolling Hills Country Club, both in Arlington.

Raised in Midland, Williams graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1971 and went on to receive 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 and bought a house in 1995 that they still own.

Gov. George W. Bush appointed him in 1998 to the Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s natural gas and oil industry, and he was elected in 2000, 2002 and 2008. He was the first African-American to hold a statewide elected position in the executive branch.

He left the commission in 2011, making an unsuccessful bid for the 25th Congressional District. Then he was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Perry to head the education agency in 2012.

“I’ve had a really, really remarkably fun run,” Williams said.

“... I hope that when it’s all said and done, I’ve well served the people of Texas.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley