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.
House Speaker Beth Harwell reportedly broke her arm while working out at the YMCA over the weekend, according to her spokeswoman Kara Owen.
This isn't the first time the Nashville Republican has found herself at the end of the legislative session nursing a broken bone. Exactly two years ago Wednesday, Harwell broke her ankle while walking her dog. She was back in time to preside over the legislative session that night, and the General Assembly adjourned a little more than a week later.
The details are still up in the air, but House Speaker Beth Harwell said she wants to weave any changes to the new statewide student exam into their administration-approved Common Core bill.
The move would give leadership more control over what a possible rollback of the exam would look like given rancor from rank-and-file members who teamed up with Democrats last month to hijack a bill to delay further implementation of Common Core education standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers for two years.
The Haslam administration has consistently said they are unwilling to budge on Common Core and believe its associated PARCC test is the best aligned with the state’s new standards teachers have been using in the classroom. The uprising went against both the administration’s and speakers’ wishes by digging deeper into the new standards and new test to be used in 2015 than they were willing to go.
“I think what we need to be examining now as a body is the testing,” she told reporters Thursday. “When I talk to most teachers and most concerned constituents, they’re worried about the PARCC testing and I think we have an opportunity now to address that.”
Harwell said members of her chamber are meeting with the administration now to understand what they can do and what the costs are. Harwell said her plan is to put any changes to PARCC into HB1549, a bill that currently builds in transparency for how student data can be used and reiterates that the state sets its own education standards, not the federal government.
Any PARCC changes would be added in conference committee, she said, a meeting between select members from both chambers to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Members of the committee can insert changes not in either bill to reach a compromise, but both chambers still need to approve identical versions of the bill for it to pass.
After repeatedly delaying Rep. John DeBerry’s alternative school voucher proposal as the hour grew late Tuesday night, the House Education Subcommittee slipped his bill onto the next calendar, then closed up the committee for the year.
The move keeps the voucher bill, also sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey in the Senate, alive for the time being. Lawmakers focusing on controversial plans to offer private school scholarships to public school students are largely narrowing in on the governor’s version which has yet to move in the Senate Education Committee and was put on pause in the House.
Sources say the governor’s voucher bill could have a tough time emerging from the lower chamber, saying the bill is a couple votes short in the House Finance Committee. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey -- who was sitting on House Speaker Beth Harwell’s bill to create a state-level charter school authorizer to encourage movement on vouchers -- said last week he is convinced the House is doing “the best they can” but acknowledged it is short on votes.
“It’s not like they didn’t try. I want to make sure we’re at least making an effort to get to the end game,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham plans to make Wednesday’s meeting it’s last, meaning both the governor’s version of a voucher plan and Kelsey’s alternative are likely up for a vote Wednesday.
House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’s still weighing whether the legislature should come back for a veto session after their expected adjournment next month.
“I don’t know that I’ve made up my mind,” said Harwell who confirmed Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey brought the idea up to her. “This is not in any way a reflection that we have any disagreement with the governor. We don’t. We were just looking at what’s good government and the protection of the strength of the legislative body.”
The speaker, who said issues like cost and timing are worth thinking about, would not confirm whether she would consider a veto session for this year, saying she and Ramsey would make that decision together. Ramsey said the legislature should not let the governor's veto go unchecked and suggested lawmakers come back for one day a month after they adjourn to revisit any vetoed bills.
Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters it’s the legislature’s prerogative if they want to come back to overturn vetoes he may make.
“There’s always a lot of speculation at this point in time in a session about what’s the governor going to veto. At this point in time, as I’ve said before, we’re still really early in this book,” he said.
It was no secret Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey held hostage House Speaker Beth Harwell’s bill to create an alternative charter school authorizer last year when the lower chamber killed his bill rejiggering judicial redistricting.
But he played politics with Harwell’s bill again this year, too, he told reporters Thursday, saying he this year delayed passage of Harwell's bill already in the Senate queue to encourage the House and the governor to keep school vouchers from falling by the wayside.
“I told Beth that this is the way things work, and that’s what happened. I hate that, but that’s just life and that’s (the) political process," Ramsey said about last session's hostage situation he carried over to this year. “I wanted to make sure we got some kind of a compromise on vouchers. I’m not sure that we’re there yet, to be perfectly honest, but it had been held up long enough, so to speak.”
Ramsey had originally said he’d take the authorizer bill up early in the session, but bottled the it up until this week even though he said vouchers may still be a few votes short to get out of a House committee. The Senate passed the charter authorizer bill 20-13 Thursday.
“I’m not sure they have the votes but I’m convinced in my mind the Speaker of the House and the governor are making legitimate effort to try to get that bill out. That’s all we need,” said Ramsey.
Two weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he told House Speaker Beth Harwell the legislature ought to come back a month after they adjourn just in case the governor vetoes anything they’ve passed.
It should be a regular practice, Ramsey explained to reporters Thursday in his weekly press availability. The legislature should schedule it 30 days after they adjourn, he said, but only in the last year of the two-year legislative session so the lawmakers have a chance to reverse any vetoes before a new General Assembly is elected.
“I think the people would expect that,” said Ramsey “When you leave here, any governor has full reign to do whatever he wants to and we can’t do anything about it. I don’t care if it’s (former Gov. Phil) Bredesen, (former Gov. Ned) McWherter, whatever, and that’s not really good practice,” he said.
The last time the legislature held a veto session was in 2001 under then-Gov. Don Sundquist who had vetoed the state’s budget. The legislature did the same in 2000.
House Speaker Beth Harwell was unavailable for comment as of late Thursday.
The governor’s veto power is already one of the weakest in the nation, requiring a simple majority of the legislature to overturn the governor. He has 10 days to reject a bill, but if vetoes come out after the legislature has gone home for the year, the veto typically sits unchallenged.
Gov. Bill Haslam has hinted he would veto legislation that seeks to delay Common Core education standards and it's related test called PARCC. He has also intimated he would veto a bill taking away local government's authority to ban guns in local parks. Both measure appear stuck in committees due to hefty price tags.
Ramsey said wanting to call lawmakers back to veto session is nothing personal against Haslam. “I wish the Constitution said you had to. That would make it a whole lot easier.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell’s signature 2013 bill stemming from a controversial charter school rejection the year before is up for a Senate floor vote Monday.
Harwell has eased off the gas substantially this legislative session on the bill which last year was prominent during the legislative session. While the bill passed her chamber 62-30 last year, she has not publicly pressured the Senate to take up her bill this year.
The return of the bill allowing the state to approve charter schools in select counties, including Davidson, comes nearly a year after Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey sidelined Harwell’s key legislation in retribution for the lower chamber shooting down a bill he favored.
A swarm of legal opinions have surfaced since then weighing in on the constitutionality of the measure. So has an ongoing contentious debate largely within Metro Nashville Public Schools about the role the publicly funded, privately run schools should play here.
The bill would allow the state Board of Education to OK charter school applications rejected by local school districts home to any school the state considers as failing. Currently, that would include Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox and Shelby counties.
Memphis and Nashville have the bulk of the state’s charter schools, although three are open in Hamilton County and charter applications are expected in Knoxville and Springfield this spring, according to the Tennessee Charter School Center.