At least two prominent Republicans in the state House of Representatives are suggesting a call by fellow GOP lawmakers for “the immediate removal from office” of Education Department Commissioner Kevin Huffman is, at a minimum, premature.
A letter sent last week to Gov. Bill Haslam that was signed by 13 House Republicans and one Senate Republican excoriated Huffman and the Education Department for failing to heed concerns and complaints from local school districts as the administration and the GOP Legislature has gone about “overhauling education in Tennessee.”
“Our trustworthiness has continued to be jeopardized on education reform,” the Republican lawmakers wrote in the June 19 letter to the governor. “We feel that a great source of that mistrust comes from the actions, and general attitude of Commissioner Kevin Huffman and that is why we…demand the immediate resignation of Commissioner Kevin Huffman for misguided leadership, dereliction of duty, and for failing to uphold the laws of the State of Tennessee in the last TCAP debacle we are currently witnessing.”
House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin and Calendar and Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn of Knoxville each told TNReport that they believe it’s unjustified at this time to be demanding the head of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief education official.
The Department of Education released a statement last week saying that the letter-signing GOP lawmakers’ accusations of illegal or improper activities by the department were “baseless,””categorically untrue” and “completely inaccurate.” The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that over the weekend Haslam said Huffman still has his support through the end of the year, but that “it’s too early to say what the cabinet will look like” should the governor, as is widely presumed, win a second term in the November election.
While Casada and Dunn acknowledged there’s plenty of room for disagreement with, or criticism of, Commissioner Huffman and the Education Department, they said the Republican administration deserves some political latitude from GOP lawmakers, at least in absence of a full inquiry into issues surrounding the TCAP controversy.
Dunn noted that the Tennessee Comptroller has already been asked by two Republican lawmakers to investigate whether any laws were violated by the Education Department when officials last month OK’d delaying release of Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results, which are usually included in students’ end-of-the-year report cards.
Lawmakers ought to at least wait to see the results of that audit before they start making specific demands on the Haslam administration, Dunn said.
“I do think that it is very proper to ask questions about what happened with the TCAP scores coming out,” said Dunn. “There will be a discussion, and I am sure there will be legislation that deals with what happens when the scores are not available, and there will probably be a discussion about whether the scores should be included on the last report card or not.”
But Dunn, who also serves on the House Education Committee and has been a vocal proponent of school choice and other reforms, said he’s taking “the long view” on the Haslam administration’s approach to education reform. In Dunn’s view, “good things are happening” in education as a result of the GOP running state government the past four years.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we doubling spending on education and test scores were going down,” said Dunn. “Now that Republicans are in charge, we are cutting taxes and test scores are going up.”
Dunn, who has been in the Legislature for about two decades, also pointed out that most of lawmakers who signed the letter are only just wrapping up their first or second terms, and they may lack the perspective he has.
Casada questions whether a legislative-branch member ought to be publicly demanding such specific and immediate actions on the part of a governor, like removal of a top executive branch official. “I feel like that my constitutional authority, as a legislator, is to pass laws and to appropriate budgetary items — to pass a budget,” he said. “That’s what I have been charged to do.”
Casada, who emphasized that he was speaking “only from my perspective” and not judging the lawmakers from a position of rank in the caucus leadership, added that he, too, parts ways with the administration on education issues from time to time.
“I strongly disagree with Common Core, and there are some other policies that I strongly disagree with the commissioner on. But Commissioner Huffman answers to the governor, not to me,” said Casada, who is being challenged in the GOP primary for his seat in the Legislature by Cherie Hammond, a member of the Williamson County Board of Education.
The only Senator to sign the letter, Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, told TNReport Huffman’s been given all the time he deserves, and it’s become clear enough over the last year that school-district superintendents across the state “have lost confidence in him.”
“It’s time for him to move on,” said Niceley, who is in his first term as a senator, but before that served six terms in the House. “The local directors should be his biggest supporters, and they are not. He’s lost them.”
The letter by the Republicans declared, “During (Huffman’s) tenure, complaints have poured in from our districts, from every level of professional involvement of education. From student teachers to superintendents, the feeling of a general lack of cooperation has left a black mark on this administration’s efforts to better the quality of education across the state.”
There were no Democrats’ names on the letter, although they’ve made little attempt to hide their displeasure with Huffman, or their contempt for a lot of what’s gone by the name of “education reform” under his leadership.
The House Democratic Caucus issued a press release just after news of the TCAP delay became public last month proclaiming, “Under Kevin Huffman’s leadership of the Department of Education, school districts, teachers and students have been mired in problems caused by the Commissioner’s push for more standardized testing without the proper infrastructure.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, was quoted in the release saying, “While Commissioner Huffman has pushed for more and more accountability for our teachers, his own Department has yet to be called to account for their own failures.”