Time for a New Governance Strategy for Texas Higher Ed



I seldom agree with much of anything that appears on the Houston Chronicle editorial page, but at least parts of a couple of recent entries on the need for a long overdue, in-depth review of higher education governance are exceptions.  We’ve spent a lot of time and much ink over the past few years discussing the controversial “seven breakthrough solutions” to higher education reform, the UT Regent Wallace Hall investigations, the “invasion” of The University of Texas on the turf of the University of Houston, the competition among seven of our institutions to achieve national “Tier One” status, and related side shows, while ducking the real underlying issue.

What we have here in all of these instances is further manifestation of the lack of a coherent strategy for Texas higher education governance and the roles that each of our public institutions should play.  Every effort in my memory to bring coherence to this issue, which dates to the proposal over 30 years ago by a commission appointed to design either a functional or a geographic approach to higher education in Texas, has failed because of parochial politics. And I see no resolution of that situation in the immediate future, given the treacherous political terrain for any statewide office holder or legislator who tackles the issue.  It’s not a winner.

But things have changed in the past three decades, and I believe that we need to try again.  For starters, the higher education structure in Texas is complicated with entangled missions, 12 boards of regents, six university systems, six independent colleges and universities, and 50 public community colleges.  And, more importantly, it is no longer enough to think about public education without recognizing it as a continuum from pre-kindergarten to a bachelor’s degree or industry certification, or PreK-16 as we like to call it, and its strategic planning and governance should reflect that reality.

In writing to the Sunset Advisory Commission on the 2012-13 sunset review of the Texas Education Agency, I noted that a strong, consistent, and responsive governance structure is necessary for Texas to claim its position as the national leader in public education and maintain that position in the future. I referenced the November 2008 publication, Common Ground: A Declaration of Principles and Strategies for Texas Education Policy, which four colleagues and I co-authored, in which we pinpoint the problems with Texas’ current public education governance, primarily addressing elementary and secondary schools, but with obvious implications for the entire continuum:

“Texas currently does not have the necessary governance structure for a high performing public school system. Its most glaring weakness is its incapacity to make coherent education policy. Education policymaking is diffused among the Legislature, the State Board of Education (SBOE), the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC)……………….{not to mention over 20 additional boards, commissions, and committees authorized by the Legislature to pursue various public education policy recommendations}.

Education policy will always be made through the political process. But Texas should at least align the political process so that whatever it is, the state’s education policy framework is coherent and stable. It may be time for Texas to study other states and determine best practices for making and overseeing education policy. In the meantime, the various state bodies that make education policy should strive to unite behind common goals, standard definitions, clear expectations, and aligned systems; and compatible with reasonable regulatory and management flexibility, the Legislature should assure coherence by placing as much as possible of the state’s policy framework in statute……….”

The political effort necessary to address these critical governance issues would rival anything Texas has attempted in public policy at least since World War II, but we need to begin.

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