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Texas Education Agency commissioner Mike Morath talks teacher staffing, book banning, STAAR tests and more issues the statewide education system faces

Commissioner Mike Morath oversees public education in Texas. He talked to WFAA about the series of issues schools have faced from COVID to staffing problems

TEXAS, USA — Schools have become the go-to outlet for debates over the country’s most contentious topics from race and culture to COVID-19.

Mike Morath is in charge of Texas public schools as the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Governor Greg Abbott appointed Morath, a former Dallas ISD trustee, to lead the agency in 2016.

After months of requesting an interview, Morath agreed to speak to WFAA about a range of issues facing parents and teachers in his first one-on-one interview this year.

"When you think about the disruptions of the last two years that schools have faced, they have been tremendous," Morath said.

Morath says his top focus now is student learning loss. Last year, nearly 40 percent of Texas students failed the STAAR math exam. Another 33 percent failing reading. 

Educators have pushed to cancel the STAAR test this year, claiming districts and teachers could be unfairly punished for poor results considering the issues schools have faced this year.

In a statement on teaching shortages, the president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers said that teachers are already stretched too thin to cover curriculums.

"If Abbott really wanted to do something right now to help the crises in our schools, he’d cancel the STAAR test this spring," president Zeph Capo said. "Adding standardized testing -- which isn’t going to provide any meaningful results -- to an already chaotic and exhausting campus schedule is just piling on more stress to our students and educators."

Morath says that’s not an option.

"It is important for us to take that as a measurement perspective so that we know how to, as adults, to best serve those students in the next year," he said. "It’s not designed to tell you why. It’s not designed to give you an action plan. It’s just like are the children at grade level."

Of course, student achievement has not been the topic parents and politicians have focused on. Instead, school board meetings and campaigns have been focused on critical race theory or CRT, a university-level legal theory that racism is embedded in legal systems.

CRT has become a loaded term, and Morath didn’t want to share his definition of the term when we spoke. Instead, he referenced Senate Bill 3, the state’s recently passed "anti-CRT law" that never actually mentions "critical race theory."

"What schools are prohibited from doing, for example, is to teach or to train staff that any one race is better or worse than another," Morath said.

But are any schools actually doing that?

"What I will say is that you've got 9,000 schools in the state of Texas, and 350,000 classrooms," Morath said. "What happens any given day in any given classroom can vary."

The state has also seen a recent surge in efforts to ban books. While running for office, Tarrant County District Attorney candidate Matt Krause asked districts across the state if they had any of around 850 different books including best-sellers and Pulitzer prize winners that discuss race, gender and LGBTQ issues.

"I have four young kids, and there’s concepts I want my kids to learn now, and there’s concepts I want my kids to learn later," Morath said. "There have been debates for 100 years on what content is appropriate in in schools, and that will continue."

In November, during his primary campaign, Abbott asked Morath to investigate pornography in schools as part of the new scrutiny on library books despite the TEA not having any law enforcement officers to investigate the issue.

Morath says all those investigations are still ongoing.

Asked if he believes if there is too much political involvement in school, Morath said politics will be a part of education since school board elections are a political process. But, he notes, those positions are non-partisan.

“It's sometimes easy to get distracted because that work is quite difficult," said Morath, who served on Dallas ISD's board for just over four years. "But it's important to remain focused on what students need us to be focused on." 

One crisis that upended education across the world, but now appears to be fading, is COVID-19. The TEA was criticized in the fall for a COVID policy that didn’t require districts to report cases to parents who were close contacts.

"It's been a robust investment in making sure that schools are safe," Morath said.

Morath touts the PPE, like masks, that were given to schools to help mitigate spread. But the state sued districts that required wearing masks.

"The state of Texas has really done a huge amount to ensure that we created the safest learning environments possible, and in fact the data bears that out," Morath said.

In truth, though, the data tells a different story.

Since the beginning of the school year, staff members in Texas public schools have tested positive at twice the rate of Texans as a whole. From August 16 to February 20, one in six public school staff members tested positive compared to one out of every 12 Texans -- this according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

COVID also exposed another that statewide issue schools faced: staffing shortages.

Some districts were forced to ask parents to volunteer to cover classes. 

Morath says the TEA doesn’t know exactly how many school districts had to close for stretches due to staffing shortages or COVID because they weren’t required to report those figures to his agency. Instead, the TEA tracked media reports to keep a list.

That's just the beginning of the issue, however. A recent Texas AFT poll found that 66 percent of Texas teachers considered quitting in the past year, with many citing COVID and "vilifying them as supposed indoctrinators" as reasons.

Also not helping matters: From 2010 to 2019, teacher pay in the state fell by $1,241, according to a University of Houston report.

Morath says his plan is to decrease workloads and increase pay.

"We're very much focused on really every sort of tactic and strategy that has been identified to show promise and improvement in both retention and recruitment," he said.

At the same time, nearly a dozen superintendents in North Texas alone have resigned this year -- including those from the area’s largest districts, Fort Worth ISD and Dallas ISD. 

Morath said a normal year involves about 14 percent superintendent turnover.

"It is a very difficult job to lead a school system, there's no doubt about it," he said.

Those staffing shortages have created yet another issue for districts. A new law requires districts to tutor students for 30 hours on subjects they failed on in the STAAR test, and some students may have failed multiple subjects.

Morath acknowledges meeting that requirement may be impossible for some districts, and the state won’t fully enforce it this year. 

“I know the legislature will be studying the specific requirements of that law and potentially adjust or make sure that we have the most student-facing public policy framework that we can, because a kid only gets one shot at first grade," Morath said.

Improving STAAR scores and getting students up to grade level is the destination. 

But with more politics and fewer teachers, the path to get there is unclear.

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