No More Waiting: Huffman Named Haslam’s Top Education Official

Gov. Bill Haslam has often positioned himself as a supporter of bold innovation in the realm of education reform.

The Republican governor has also said that in order to “capitalize on the momentum that exists right now in education,” his administration will energetically institute the “First to the Top” K-12 reforms initiated in 2010 by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee General Assembly. That bipartisan legislative effort positioned Tennessee to later win $501 million from the U.S. Department of Education as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program designed to entice states to adopt higher education standards.

On Thursday, after a nationwide search, the governor named a prominent national advocate of bold and dynamic education reform efforts to oversee the state’s public schools and serve as the governor’s point man on “First to the Top.”

Kevin Huffman, an executive with the Teach for America program, is the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. He replaces Patrick Smith, who had been serving as interim commissioner.

“There is a national conversation going on right now about how to improve our schools and how to ensure that American kids can compete with kids anywhere in the world,” Huffman told reporters gathered for his introductory press conference Thursday. “Tennessee is at the epicenter of that conversation. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m excited to take this job.”

Huffman’s experiences and accomplishments with the innovation-focused Teach for America, where he worked for the past 11 years, uniquely qualify him to lead the department, said Haslam.

The governor said that in the process of searching the country for suitable candidates for the post, he discovered that education experts everywhere are paying close attention to what’s happening in Tennessee.

“At the end of the day I chose Kevin for three reasons,” said Haslam. “Number one, he is committed to the idea that every child can learn. Number two, he understands that having great teachers in the classroom, and great principals in the school, are the key. And he is going to do everything he can to encourage those great teachers to be in the classrooms in Tennessee. Third, is this: He understands a lot of the great things that are happening in Tennessee and wants to be a part of continuing that momentum.”

Teach for America places ambitious young teachers in troubled American classrooms where they commit themselves to “going above and beyond traditional expectations” in order to inspire students to learn. Tennessee currently has more than 250 Teach for America members reaching 18,000 students in high-need public schools, according to the state education department.

Launched in 1990, Teach for America has “become one of the nation’s largest providers of teachers for low-income communities” and is dedicated to “building a pipeline of leaders committed to educational equity and excellence,” the organization’s website says. Teach for America founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp, wrote in a September 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “We are the top employer of graduating seniors at over 40 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Spelman and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”

Huffman, who was Teach for America’s vice president for public affairs and a member of the 28,000-strong organization’s “leadership team” before accepting his new assignment, is taking the job of education commissioner in the middle of a rancorous debate between the state’s powerful teachers’ union and politically energized GOP lawmakers, the most contentious aspect of which is a battle over a Republican proposal to prohibit local Tennessee school districts from engaging in collective bargaining with union negotiators.

The governor is also leading an effort to expand opportunities for children to enroll in charter schools, as well as lengthen the time a teacher has to work in a public school before becoming eligible for tenure — an idea that, while worrisome to some teachers, is popular among Tennesseans, according to a recent MTSU poll.

Huffman, who accepted the position on Wednesday, said Thursday he had not had a chance yet to meet with the Tennessee Education Association.

Asked if he believes the state needs to end collective bargaining with teachers, Huffman wouldn’t say. He said his priorities are aligned with those already articulated by Haslam, who himself has thus far refused to publicly jump in the middle of the collective bargaining brouhaha.

“I’m excited about the focus on tenure reform,” said Huffman. “I’m excited about the opportunity to bring in high-performing charter schools. I’m excited about the chance to improve the level of performance of administrators, teachers and students across the state.”

Huffman was also asked about the state’s pre-K program. Haslam has staked out a position that the state would try to maintain the pre-K program it currently has, but he does not wish to expand it to a universal program.

“My thought isn’t that different than it is on K-12,” Huffman said. “It’s got to be academically focused and focused on measurable results.

“Simply having access to a program that doesn’t actually advance learning isn’t good enough. But every kid should have access to something that readies them to go into kindergarten on an equal playing field. It’s important to look at the outcomes, not just what the access is.”

Huffman has been quite clear in the past that he supports much of what marches under the “school-choice” reform banner.

“In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school,” Huffman wrote recently in the Washington Post — where, incidentally, in 2009 Huffman won the paper’s America’s Next Great Pundit Contest.

“But if you are poor,” Huffman continued, “you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment ‘choice’ school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.”

He further declared in the Post piece, which appeared Jan. 31:

The intellectual argument against school choice is thin and generally propagated by people with myriad options. If we let the most astute families opt out of neighborhood schools, the thinking goes, those schools lose the best parents and the best students. The children stuck behind in failing schools really get hurt.

But kids are getting hurt right now, every day, in ways that take years to play out but limit their life prospects as surgically as many segregation-era laws. We can debate whether lying on school paperwork is the same as refusing to move to the back of the bus, but the harsh reality is this: We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who has himself taken a keen interest in Tennessee education reform, issued a statement Thursday applauding Haslam’s selection of Huffman.

“Kevin Huffman is exactly the type of reform-minded individual that Tennessee needs to lead its public school system,” Frist said.

“Kevin’s experience in the classroom, in education law, and in leadership at one of our nation’s most innovative education organizations give him the unique knowledge and background to make a significant positive impact on behalf of our state’s children.”

Huffman is originally from Ohio. He’s worked as a lawyer specializing in education matters and was a bilingual first- and second-grade teacher for Teach for America in Houston. He was previously married to Michelle Rhee, a prominent school reformer who was featured in the film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which a number of Tennessee General Assembly members watched during a special screening at Legislative Plaza last month.