Gov. Bill Haslam defends Tennessee education commissioner

Gov. Bill Haslam defends Tennessee education commissioner

July 9th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday staunchly defended his education commissioner from critics circulating an online petition aimed at pressuring the governor to fire Kevin Huffman over changes in state teacher pay schedules.

"I'll put it this way. If I was going out to hire an education commissioner again today, I'd hire Kevin Huffman," said Haslam, who personally recruited Huffman.

"If you look at the states that are making the most progress in education, Tennessee's at the top of that list, and Kevin gets a lot of credit for that."

Tennessee's work in education reform is challenging, the governor said.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

"And we're saying we're not going to be satisfied with being [ranked] in the 40s. When it comes to education we're making those changes that I think will move us forward," Haslam said.

Huffman, a former top executive at Teach for America, has led Haslam administration efforts in areas from toughening teacher tenure laws to charter school expansion.

For critics, the last straw came in June when State Board of Education members approved the commissioner's recommendations and changed minimum teacher salary schedules.

The move slashes the number of annual pay steps from 21 to four, de-emphasizing years of teaching experience, and eliminates pay incentives for advanced degrees beyond a master's degree.

Huffman said local systems are welcome to keep the existing structure in place, but the intent is to free local schools to offer merit pay and other incentives to get teachers in hard-to-fill subjects or failing schools.

The move quickly led to creation of two Facebook pages and a Change.org petition calling for Huffman's ouster.

"We do not want a corporate-driven, profit-seeking, reform-minded appointed person representing us in office any longer," states the petition, which had 1,262 signatures as of Monday afternoon. "Through his actions, Kevin Huffman has hurt the students and teachers."

Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said the educators' group isn't behind the petition.

But he had plenty of criticism for Huffman, saying "a lot of times he pushes policies without really understanding what the legal and education situation is in Tennessee."

Huffman, according to Wrye, is using a "playbook not grounded in reality." Case in point is the salary schedule, Wrye said, noting it ensures local systems pay teachers adequately in poor and richer communities alike, helping protect the state from lawsuits over funding inequity.

"I almost never hear him talk positively about the good work in Tennessee schools," Wrye said of Huffman. "In the last [legislative] session, he focused on one education statistic -- fourth-grade reading."

The commissioner, Wrye said, never pointed out to state lawmakers another statistic he believes is important -- that Tennessee is among the top 10 in states when it comes to graduation rates.

While Huffman is under fire on the salary schedule changes, state School Board Chairman Fielding Rolston points out that the board asked him to recommend changes.

Wrye said many of those changes were based on a Huffman-pushed bill that failed to move in the Legislature.

That plan would have let schools increase average class size and use the savings to offer merit pay and other incentives. The plan approved by the state board last month doesn't touch the class size issue.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.