Tennessee education commissioner, governor say funds needed for more education reforms

Tennessee education commissioner, governor say funds needed for more education reforms

May 20th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman speaks to the Senate Education Committee about common core standards during a hearing last September in Nashville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Success isn't cheap.

And if Tennessee wants to keep up with the recent pace of educational reform -- and improvement -- Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said it's going to take a rethinking of funding.

Much of the state's ambitious reform agenda was tied to the $500 million federal Race to the Top grant, which was awarded to Tennessee in 2010. It paved the way for tougher teacher evaluations and a special statewide school district to target habitually underperforming schools, among a multitude of other efforts.

On Monday, both Huffman and Gov. Bill Haslam again touted the Volunteer State's recent educational progress -- this time in front of a national audience. Both again tied recent improvement in national test scores to their aggressive reform agenda at the national conference of the Education Writers Association, a gathering of more than 200 education journalists at Vanderbilt University.

Matthew Springer, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt's Peabody College, said Tennessee has indeed made impressive progress toward bettering its schools.

But he still has a lingering question:

"Are these reforms sustainable?" he said.

He said it generally takes three to five years for researchers to figure out if a given initiative is successful. Tennessee started implementing many reforms in the 2011-12 school year.

"Did the federal government have this program in place long enough for us to actually find out what's working?" he said. "I question that."

For his part, Huffman is convinced many of the reforms are working. And he plans to continue them, so long as he can find the cash.

"I think there are questions about how we're going to pay for certain things," he said.

About half of the $500 million grant went to individual school districts, while the other half went to one-time state expenditures. The education chief said he wants to keep certain programs -- like last summer's unprecedented Common Core training for more than 30,000 Tennessee teachers.

"I think we are going to figure out how to keep doing that," Huffman said, "but it's going to have to involve moving resources around."

The governor and his education chief have been repeatedly criticized by teachers unions and other groups. And the anti-Common Core crowd struck a blow at this spring's legislative session when they halted for one year Tennessee's use of a new statewide assessment.

But in a keynote address Monday, Haslam brushed off the critics. He pointed to his recent Tennessee Promise effort, which will provide two free years of community college for graduating seniors.

Everywhere he goes, people grab him and say they have new hope that their child or grandchild will attend college, he said. It's changing expectations for K-12 education and for life beyond high school.

"Hopefully, we're changing the trajectory for a lot of Tennesseans," Haslam said, "but also finally we're providing the opportunity for a much better trained workforce."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-624.