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.

Jun 20, 2014 7:57 AM

Dems to Huffman: What did you know about TCAP delay, when did you know it?

Three House Democrats are hitting up the Department of Education for records shedding light on the internal decision making that led to a delay in the release of preliminary student test scores last week.

Nashville Democrats Bo Mitchell and Mike Stewart joined with Knoxville Democrat Gloria Johnson in filing an open records request seeking emails and documents relating to the delay, TCAP results, how the data was processed, what test questions the department omitted and how the story was picked up by the media.

“It seems improbable that your Department was simply unaware that such an unprecedented delay would be warranted until the very day that the scores were to be revealed,” read a letter from the three lawmakers.

The department put superintendents on notice last week that third through eighth grade students' test scores would not be ready on time for teachers to factor into final grades, as required by state law. The department then decided to issue waivers to school districts wanting to omit the test scores instead of revising report cards or returning teachers to school during summer break. Gov. Bill Haslam said he backed the department’s decision to wait on scores despite criticism for the delay.

Two of the three Democrats pushing for the public records — Mitchell and Johnson — are facing targeted opposition from Republicans in this November's general election.

May 29, 2014 6:00 AM

Haslam: State made ‘accountable decision’ in TCAP delay

While critics charge the state’s education chief should be held accountable for a delay releasing test scores, Gov. Bill Haslam said there’s little for the state to regret.

“What you have to remember is this decision was driven by the fact that we, with new Common Core standards, we have additional responsibility to make sure the test is accurate,” the governor told reporters Wednesday.

“An outside technical committee advised us to delay until they could make certain that all the equating happened in an accurate way. It would have been easier to send those out on time but that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. So I think we made the accountable decision in this case,” he said.

Critics of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman have used the delay to reignite calls for his resignation. News the state would deliver scores late as most schools release students and teachers for the summer has resulted in 104 school districts getting permission from the department to opt out of legal requirements they factor students’ test scores into their final grades. The scores will still be used later as a factor in teacher evaluations.

That’s an “unfortunate consequence of a hard decision that the Department of Education had to make,” the governor said. “If you’re going to err, you’re going to err on the side of getting it right and taking a little longer.”

May 28, 2014 11:16 AM