'Old Schoolmarm' Now Facing a New Test
By her own description, Shirley Neeley is a fast-talking, Harley-riding, cattle-branding, no-excuses Texan.
The first woman to hold the post of state education commissioner, Neeley's not afraid to speak her mind, even if her opinion is controversial.
But when it comes to her very public, ongoing disagreement with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, a self-described "salty" Texas woman, Neeley says the issue has been overblown.
"The media has had some fun trying to make this a catfight between two Texas women," she said. "It's never been a catfight. The secretary and this commissioner respectfully disagree."
It may not be an out-and-out fight, but the two are certainly locked in a battle of wills over how special education students' academic progress should be measured.
Federal officials say Texas allows too many special education students to opt out of taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills at their grade level. Neeley traveled to Washington in April to meet Spellings and her staff to try to reach a compromise.
It was a bold move that has yet to pay off. Spellings' initial reaction to the meeting was to fine Texas almost $500,000 for ignoring a deadline to report school ranking information. Neeley hopes to have an answer on the special education issue this summer.
Whether she gets the answer she wants, Neeley said she won't regret the effort. Never mind that Neeley describes Spellings as a friend. Never mind that both are Republicans. Details like that don't dictate her behavior, Neeley said.
"We have to do what's right for every individual child," she said. "Of the 4.4 million children we serve, to date I've not seen any with a little 'D' or a little 'R' tattooed on their forehead. Education is nonpartisan."
Neeley's frankness has earned the respect of political leaders such as state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chair of the Senate's education committee.
"Don't ask her what she thinks unless you really want to know. She doesn't hold anything back," Shapiro said. "I've been so impressed with her enthusiasm and her tremendous desire to do what's right. I don't believe I've met many people that believe in doing what's right more than Shirley Neeley."
In her first year as commissioner, Neeley has dealt with unprecedented federal mandates, an ongoing legal challenge to the state's school finance system, the controversial process of adopting new health textbooks that include sex education topics, and accusations of widespread cheating on standardized tests in Texas public schools.
And for five months her staff has worked almost around the clock as lawmakers worked to revamp the way Texas pays for public schools, though the effort failed when House and Senate leaders couldn't reach a compromise.
"I can't think of a better time to be commissioner than with the Legislature in session and their whole charge is to come up with a school finance system," she said.
Neeley, 56, likes to describe herself as an "old schoolmarm," a studied understatement at best.
A single working mom for much of her professional life, Neeley, who is divorced, is now the grandmother of two boys. Her favorite weekend pastime is riding her black-and-gold Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and she likes to escape to her family's Leon County ranch, where she still keeps a small herd of cattle.
Neeley has the energy level of an 8-year-old. She seems constantly in motion and is an animated talker and an active listener. Her calendar is jammed with State Board of Education meetings, legislative hearings, high school graduation speeches and school groundbreakings.
But she's not all business. On Friday she traded in her Austin-appropriate suit for leather and denim and led hundreds of hard-partying bikers along Congress Avenue to kick off the 10th annual Republic of Texas Biker Rally.
"We took it for granted that she'd be like other commissioners, but she's been different," state education board member Mary Helen Berlanga said. "She's a go-getter. She's aggressive, and that's what we need."
Neeley honed her iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove reputation in her hometown of Galena Park. She served as superintendent of Galena Park's school district from 1995 until her appointment as education commissioner by Gov. Rick Perry in January 2004.
She inherited a district that teetered on the brink of academically acceptable. Neeley's alma mater, Galena Park High School, had earned the state's low-performing tag.
Neeley's plan: Demand success. She pledged to parents that if the district had another school that ranked "low-performing" she would resign. Then she told her principals they had three years to reach "recognized" or "exemplary" status or lose their jobs.
"Here's the deal: As the teacher goes, so goes the classroom. As the principal goes, so goes the school. And as the superintendent goes, so goes the district," she said. "You have to set high standards, roll up your sleeves and get in there and go to work."
Some of her principals, who were longtime colleagues and friends, lost their jobs, but Neeley says the decision was the right one.
"In every instance where I removed a principal, the next year the school was 'recognized' and in most cases 'exemplary.' I told the board, 'If I'm the problem, get rid of me.' I told my central office, "If you're the problem, you're going, too,'" she said. "You just have to have that kind of accountability."
Neeley is not a critic of standardized tests. And she backs education reform efforts, even when they include sanctions for low-performing schools.
"How do we assess if we're doing our jobs without a test?" she asks. " Life is a test."
She's blasé about the idea of vouchers, an effort to make private school available at taxpayer expense that most teacher associations vehemently fight. The way Neeley sees it, if public schools do the job right, parents won't want to leave them.
An autographed picture of President Bush thanking Neeley for her contributions sits near the computer in her office at the Texas Education Agency.
Not typical office décor for someone who bucks the mandates of No Child Left Behind, Bush's education reform law.
Neeley's disagreement isn't with the overall goal of No Child Left Behind, it's with its implementation in one specific area.
Under the law, only 1 percent of a school's student population can be exempted from taking standardized tests at their grade level. If any more kids take an alternative test, regardless of their disabilities, their scores count as failures.
That resulted in more than 1,500 Texas public schools failing federal standards this year. Neeley granted appeals to more than 1,300 of those schools, effectively reversing the federal rating status.
Soon after Spellings took office in January, she agreed that states needed more flexibility and said an additional 2 percent of students may take an alternative test if necessary.
But in Texas, where about 12 percent of students are in special-education classes, about 9 percent took an alternative test this school year.
Neeley agrees that number needs to come down. But she's still lobbying the Department of Education to give her three years to get to the federal cap. Otherwise, hundreds of Texas schools likely will fail the federal benchmark again this year.
"I don't want to put children with disabilities in a stressful situation or doom them to failure from the get-go, but the number has got to decrease," Neeley said. "I want to be able to say: 'You gave us an opportunity and Texas did it,' without having to compromise our integrity, hurting children or pushing children too far."
Spellings, too, has downplayed the disagreement. She's also dealing with challenges from other states.
Connecticut has announced plans to sue the Department of Education, arguing the law imposes unfunded mandates on local school districts. And last month, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that gave priority to state education rules over regulations from Washington, even though it could cost the state as much as $76 million in federal funding.
"I sincerely hope and believe that Connecticut, Texas and Utah want what's best for (their) children. I sincerely hope we can work out our differences," Spellings said in May at an Education Writers Association meeting. "There are a vast majority of states quietly working to get the job done and a few states loudly protesting. I wouldn't call that a rebellion."
Neeley is adamant in her support for No Child Left Behind. But she also believes the Texas accountability plan, the blueprint for No Child Left Behind, is in some ways superior to the feds' approach.
The test Texas developed to assess special-education student progress is rigorous, not "low-level" as U.S. education officials have described it, Neely said.
"I've tried to tell USDE (U.S. Department of Education), you need to look at autistic children, for example. They don't fit neatly into one category," Neeley said. "They may be geniuses in art, music or recall of numbers, but they may not be able to read."
State Board of Education members are proud of Neeley's gumption.
"I just want to thank you for taking some arrows on this," board member Terri Leo told Neeley at the board's April meeting. "As I understand it, the same people that are fussing about it are the people who wrote the rules for Texas."
Neeley doesn't want to be pegged as "defiant" or "rebellious" when it comes to federal law. She agrees that too many students in Texas are in special education and that many of those could and should take the TAKS on grade level.
"I always tell my superintendents and principal and teachers to do what's best for every individual child, but where we can raise expectations, let's do it," Neeley said.
She wants hard data to show the Department of Education that Texas is making headway with special-education students, and to extensively document in every case why it was necessary for a child to take an alternative test.
"To put it very bluntly, I've fired my last bullet," she said. "In order for me to reload, I need more ammunition. I need examples of what we're doing to raise the bar here."
Richard Middleton, superintendent of North East School District in San Antonio, said Texas educators stand ready to deliver that ammunition.
He said Neeley has won their loyalty by standing up to the federal government.
"She proved her mettle to me. She really stood up for what is right and protected and honored the work of educators in the state," he said. "Had she not taken this strong stand, I think you could've seen a complete collapse of support from superintendents. It was make-or-break time."
San Antonio Express-News
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