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Perry Names Tea Party Activist Head Of Texas Education Agency

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AUSTIN (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — A tea party favorite who worked for the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush was tapped Monday to become Texas’ top education official, and he’ll take over just weeks before the start of major litigation over the way the state funds its public schools.

On the first day of school for many students across the state, Gov. Rick Perry chose Michael Williams to lead the Texas Education Agency, which oversees Texas’ 1,200 school districts and charter schools. The former Texas Railroad Commission chairman begins work Sept. 1, ahead of a trial in a lawsuit filed by most of the state’s school districts after lawmakers cut more than $5 billion in public education funding and grants.

Williams is succeeding Robert Scott, who stepped down in July after five years at the agency’s helm. Scott had made headlines earlier this year by suggesting that too much emphasis on standardized testing across the state was a “perversion” of the testing regime’s original intent.

The governor also chose Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, who had served as TEA’s deputy commissioner for policy and programs since 2007, as the agency’s new chief deputy commissioner.

“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.

Williams served as assistant U.S. secretary of education for civil rights and deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement at the U.S. Department of Treasury under Bush. He is also a former adjunct professor at the Texas Southern University School of Public Affairs, and at Texas Wesleyan University Law School.

He was appointed to the state railroad commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry in Texas, in 1998 by then-Gov. George W. Bush. Williams then was elected to complete the term in November 2000, and re-elected in 2002 and 2008. He left the post last year and mulled a run for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — but instead became one of 10 Republicans vying for the GOP nomination in the 25th Congressional District.

Williams, whose reputation for streamlining regulation earned him the backing of tea party star U.S. Rep Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, while still a Senate candidate, was defeated in the congressional primary on May 29.

He’ll take over the education agency just before the Oct. 22 trial in Austin for the school districts’ lawsuit. School districts representing about 70 percent of Texas’ 5 million public-school students sued the state after the Legislature last year cut $4 billion from public education funding and an additional $1.4 billion from grant programs — even though statewide enrollment has been growing.

Phone messages left for Williams on Monday weren’t immediately returned.

Conservatives were quick to applaud Williams’ appointment.

“Texas is in the midst of a transformation that will fundamentally change how we approach public education,” said James Golsan of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank. “School districts are becoming more efficient in their use of taxpayer dollars; the Texas Supreme Court may soon help them become even more so.”

Golsan is predicting the latest round of school finance legal battles may eventually be heard by Texas’ highest court, just as similar lawsuits filed in previous years.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, called Williams “a rock solid conservative.”

“We look forward to working with him to maintain and improve Texas’ world class accountability system,” Hammond said in a statement.

In a statement released Monday, Texas State Teachers Association president Rita Haecker said in part, “The Texas State Teachers Association is disappointed that Gov. Rick Perry – at a pivotal time for Texas public schools – didn’t chose an education professional as the next State Commissioner of Education. We hope that Michael Williams will at least listen to teachers, the real education experts, rather than promote the profiteers who would siphon tax dollars from the public schools for vouchers and other privatization schemes.”

(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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