Critic: If Huffman stays, Haslam's education agenda faces tough road

If Commissioner Kevin Huffman is still in charge of the Department of Education next year, the administration is in a for a long legislative session come January, according to Rep. Rick Womick.

He and more than a dozen Republicans are demanding the "immediate removal" of Huffman as the state's head of education. It's a move the governor's office has called a "political stunt" and a letter the Department of Education contends is full of unfounded accusations.

“As long as he keeps him in there, we’ll continue to speak out. And when it comes time for session next year, we’ll be presenting legislation that will turn back some of these policies. We may even file legislation demanding his removal,” Womick said. “Everything’s still on the table. It’s up to the governor right now. The ball’s in his court, we’ll see what he does."

While the letter was signed by Republicans in the tea party wing of the legislature — almost all in the House of Representatives — the Rockvale Republican was asked to draft the letter, he said. Womick is one of Huffman's leading critics who has recently joined a chorus of parents, teachers and superintendents who have questioned Huffman's decisions throughout much of the governor's his administration. Womick played a key role this spring in forcing the state to delay a key test aligned with new Common Core education standards by partnering conservative Republicans with most of the state's Democrats.

The letter called for Huffman’s removal in light of the department’s recent delay releasing an initial round of standardized test scores to school districts. The delay caused a stir among school superintendents, leading the department to waive requirements that school officials in over 100 districts factor those scores into students’ final grades, as required by law.

The Department of Education found fault with allegations in the letter from Republicans. Suggestions the department could be altering test scores is "categorically untrue" and the idea that the commissioner violated state law by issuing districts wavers and is trying conceal results is "completely inaccurate," according to a department response emailed late Thursday.

The attorney general is looking into whether waiving using test scores in student grades violates a newly approved state law that bans the commissioner from waiving “federal and state student assessment and accountability.”

In an interview earlier this month with the Post, Huffman laughed when asked whether he plans to stay with the governor's administration for a second term.

“I don’t know. I have no idea. Not a conversation that I’m having, haven’t put thought into length of tenure,” he said. “I have a good job. I’m psyched to be here, that’s enough for now.”

Haslam has stood by Huffman's decision to delay test scores, saying the department did the accountable thing by waiting to release scores until the department was positive they were accurate and ready. He has repeatedly said he supports the commissioner.

House Speaker Beth Harwell both defended the administration and tried to calm the waters within her caucus.

"I’m proud of the accomplishments that Gov. Haslam has achieved in education reform. The NAEP test results showed Tennessee improved more than any other state in the 10 year history of the test, and that indicates we are on the right path,” she said in an emailed statement Thursday.

“Change is always difficult — but setting personalities and managerial styles aside, I know Gov. Haslam and this General Assembly want to do what is best for the children of this state. The taxpayers of this state should demand nothing less and the children of this state deserve nothing less," she said.