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Huffman’s successor will face big policy challenges, limited funds

Kevin Huffman's predecessor will have to work with policymakers in Washington, D.C., as well as educators in Tennessee.
Kevin Huffman's predecessor will have to work with policymakers in Washington, D.C., as well as educators in Tennessee.

When Kevin Huffman became Tennessee’s education commissioner in 2011, he assumed leadership of an ambitious reform agenda the state had adopted to win a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant.

His successor will have to continue to carry that agenda forward. It includes implementation of the Common Core State Standards and high-stakes teacher evaluations driven by test score data.

And his successor won’t have the benefit of Race to the Top largesse to pay for those ongoing changes: most of it was spent down during Huffman’s tenure.

Huffman’s successor will also have to finesse two delicate sets of relationships that can at times conflict with one another: maintaining support within the U.S. Department of Education, while simultaneously rekindling enthusiasm for Gov. Bill Haslam’s education agenda among Tennessee lawmakers and educators.

Samantha Bates is director of member services for the Professional Educators of Tennessee, She said many educators hope the next commissioner will be someone they can trust — and that they are more likely to trust someone with deep connections to the state.

“There was a lot of backtracking [this year], a lot of problems,” she said, citing the delay in TCAP scores and the tweaking of the teacher evaluation process. “Tennesseans just need someone they can trust, and you’re going to have a hard time bringing someone from the outside.”She said Haslam’s selection of a Tennesseean might give the state’s teachers a sense of validation. “It’s almost a proof that we’re good enough; that we don’t need someone to come in and tell us how to do it,” Bates said.

One of the next commissioner’s battles will be over whether to retain the Common Core standards, which are currently under statewide review, but which Haslam has continued to support. Bates said that those wary of the Common Core because they weren’t developed in Tennessee might be more convinced by a Tennessean.

Some Tennesseans were wary of Huffman’s ties to Washington, D.C., where he worked for Teach for America before coming to Nashville. But said those ties helped create a smooth working relationship with the U.S. Department of Education.

Officials at the Tennessee Department of Education will have to apply for a No Child Left Behind waiver extension from the federal education department by the end of March. Waivers exempt states from punitive measures that strip funding from schools with low test scores.

During Huffman’s tenure, the federal education officials granted Tennessee its waivers in large part of because of the commissioner’s commitment to test-based accountability, and involvement in the beginnings of the Achievement School District, the statewide district tasked with raising the bottom 5 percent of schools into the top 20 percent.

“It’s going to be important to bring in a new commissioner that has some knowledge of what’s required [to get a waiver renewal],” said Anne Hyslop, an expert in No Child Left Behind for Bellwether Education Partners. “The state could get into some dicey waters.”

State officials also will have to work with lawmakers in Washington D.C. on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Reauthorization has been stalled for years and faces long odds. But it has the potential to dramatically change education at the state level, potentially altering testing requirements and the greatly expanding school choice.

It’s for these reasons that Haslam should consider candidates’ knowledge of federal policy, said Paul Pastorek, the former commissioner of education in Louisiana (and, like Huffman, often a lightning rod when it came to educational reform).

“There’s no doubt that having an awareness of a local community is important,” Pastorek, a native Louisianan, said. “[But,] when I weigh the two, if I were a governor […] I think the weight in my mind would have to be to the ability to relate the Tennessee agenda to the federal government.”

When picking his own replacement, Pastorek went with John White, from New York.

Kris Amundson, the head of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said that relationships at home are also important. A leader who can build teams across the state will be able to keep the reform momentum going, even with Race to the Top running dry, she said.

For an example of a commissioner whose been able to do that, she pointed to Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky — and a native of South Carolina.

Bates of the professional educators group predicted Haslam will select someone already working in the Tennessee Department of Education. That could strike the balance: someone who has worked in Tennessee, has the same agenda as Haslam, and has experience working with the federal government.

“Everybody has their little wish list,” Bates said. “And I think everyone is going to be disappointed.”

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