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

Band of GOP legislators call for education commissioner's resignation

A group of 14 GOP legislators have signed a letter calling for the immediate resignation of embattled Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, citing last month’s delay in test scores as raising questions about the integrity of the department.

The letter accuses the commissioner of “misguided leadership,” and “dereliction of duty,” as well as potentially violating state law by waiving a requirement that teachers factor  standardized test scores in final grades after the state was late turning the test results over to districts. 

“While we do not doubt your motivation or desire to see improvements in the education of all Tennesseans, we realize that we cannot begin to craft an honest solution to our education problems without first recognizing an even bigger problem: a complete lack of trust in the Tennessee Department of Education that now encompasses this state,” read the letter dated Thursday.

The legislators argue the state’s delay could mean the department is trying to “conceal the disastrous results of this years TCAP test scores” and opening up the ability for the department to manipulate the results.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said it is disappointed in the letter after having met with several of the undersigned legislators this week.

“Education is one of the most serious issues for the future of our state, and the governor believes there is a more productive way to discuss something so significant than through a letter by a small group of legislators more interested in trying to get headlines than substance,” read an emailed statement by spokesman Dave Smith.

“Our office reached out to several of these members earlier in the week to discuss their concerns, and it is disappointing they chose a political stunt instead of constructive dialogue,” he continued.

The letter is signed by 14 members, largely in the House of Representatives which has been more vocal in criticizing the commissioner. They include Reps. Rick Womick, Joe Carr, Tilman Goins, Courtney Rogers, Andy Holt, Terri Lynn Weaver, Mike Sparks, Micah Van Huss, Jeremy Durham, Mark Pody, Sheila Butt, Judd Matheny, Debra Moody, and Sen. Frank Nicely. Sen. Joey Hensley’s name is also listed, but with no signature.

Jun 19, 2014 3:13 PM

Lack of support in House kills Haslam's vouchers bill

Explaining the votes aren’t there for a school voucher program, Rep. Bill Dunn withdrew from consideration a controversial plan to give students at failing schools taxpayer money to attend private or religious schools. 

The Haslam administration's failure for the second time in two years deals another blow to the governor, whose legislative agenda has muddled through the General Assembly all session.

“I think today the children lost and the system won,” said Dunn, a long-time advocate for school vouchers after pulling the bill from the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee Tuesday morning.

“We’re now in campaign season and we just have to recognize that. I’m not going to give up on the kids and I’m hoping that the governor won’t either and that we’ll be back next year with it,” said the Knoxville Republican.

Some in the legislature have been hungry for a school voucher program for years, leading the governor to appoint a study committee in 2012 to examine what a program could look like in Tennessee. Haslam introduced a voucher program last year then pulled it off the table after Senators toyed with expanding it.

“We knew getting opportunity scholarships passed would be an uphill battle because some legislators wanted a broader bill and some didn’t want a bill at all," said Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe. "The governor has said all along that the proposal wasn’t a silver bullet but a piece of a larger strategy to offer more options for choice to families. The governor is disappointed that a bill that made it further than any other voucher proposal has didn’t make it to the finish line.”

The administration made a priority of the voucher bill this year but fought with the House over competing amendments. The bill languished in a key finance committee for weeks while advocates struggled to drum up the necessary votes to move it to the floor. Meanwhile, the Senate approved a voucher plan 21-10.

Dunn blamed the bill’s failure on politics in his chamber.

“I think children can’t vote, but people in the system can and it comes down to politics” in the House. “I commend the Senate for putting the kids first.”

Apr 15, 2014 9:38 AM

Few voucher opportunities in Memphis, researcher says

A small number of private schools in Memphis are willing to accept students with school vouchers, and those that are don't have many extra seats, says an education researcher at Vanderbilt. WPLN has the story.

Apr 7, 2014 12:00 PM

House leadership to beef up mild anti-Common Core bill

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.

Apr 3, 2014 2:56 PM

Trouble brewing for charter authorizer

Casada: Everything is on the table given budget cuts
Apr 1, 2014 12:53 PM

Difference in competing voucher bills is five counties, 84 schools and low-income kids

The governor’s version of a school voucher program is on the move in the upper chamber, but it’s different from the one sources say is in jeopardy in the House. 

Lawmakers so far agree that up to 5,000 so-called “opportunity scholarships” covering tutition for public school students to attend private schools will would be up for grabs this fall under both proposals. The two measures are also focused on children zoned for the state’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, but the the main difference between the bills is who is eligible for the free ride and who can apply in a second round if any vouchers are left over.

Currently, 83 schools make up the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools and they sit in five counties: Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox and Shelby.

Under the governor’s version of the bill carried in the Senate, only students at those schools qualifying for free or reduced price lunch can apply for a taxpayer-funded voucher. Any vouchers not used can go to other low-income students zoned for public schools anywhere in the district. That would mean collectively, more than 200,000 low-income students could be eligible to apply under that plan, representing about 1 in 5 students statewide.

The House version is smaller, but does not account for a student's income. The measure offers vouchers to all children at the bottom 5 percent of schools regardless of income. If vouchers are left over, students at schools in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state — another 84 schools — would become eligible. That would extend the program to five more counties, including Carter, Fayette, Granger, Lake and Morgan. Between both rounds, some 70,000 students would be eligible.

More than two-thirds of schools in the bottom 10 percent statewide are in Memphis, followed by 24 schools in Metro Nashville.

The House version is parked in a committee and sources say the measure is just shy of the support it needs to emerge. However, House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks said he expects the House will adopt the Senate version, and that bill will "fly."

The Senate Education committee in its last meeting advanced the governor's voucher bill, along with the parent trigger legislation allowing parents to vote to change the direction of a school. The committeee also approved a measure allowing the Achievement School District to offer unused seats to students not zoned for that failing school and later shelved the bill prohibiting school districts from sending home information about TennCare, CHIP and the Affordable Care Act, despite the measure passing in the full House.

Mar 27, 2014 10:00 AM

Haslam encourages business leaders to ratchet up heat on lawmakers

“I’m encouraging you to punch at your weight class because your view matters incredibly to the future of Tennessee,” the governor told members of the state Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. Here, in full, is his pitch.

Mar 26, 2014 9:49 AM

House Ed Sub closes up shop, stows voucher bill away just in case

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.

Mar 26, 2014 7:12 AM

Ramsey admits to playing politics with authorizer bill to push vouchers

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.

Mar 21, 2014 2:00 PM