Tennessee Favored In No Child Left Behind Announcement

Gov. Bill Haslam got the first real sign that Tennessee will get what it wants on the No Child Left Behind law when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called him last Friday about attending an event in Washington.

The event, it turns out, was a White House ceremony Friday where Haslam introduced President Barack Obama, who announced changes on NCLB. Tennessee requested a waiver from the law in July.

Deciding whether to accept an invitation to the White House would normally be a no-brainer for a governor, but Haslam had a little scheduling conflict. His daughter, Annie, is getting married. The wedding was planned for Saturday in the front yard of the Tennessee Residence — with the governor himself performing the ceremony.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a little issue. I’ve got a wedding going on that week, and I’ve got to make sure my boss says it’s OK,'” Haslam said Friday in Nashville. He didn’t say exactly who the boss was he was referring to, although presumably it is First Lady Crissy Haslam. The rehearsal dinner was scheduled Friday night.

“Once I knew I could do it logistically, I said I would be glad to, because I think they’re doing the right thing,” Haslam said of the trip.

The governor wasn’t allowing many details about the wedding, but he was happy Friday to talk about his visit to Washington, the return from which delayed him from his appointment to speak in Nashville at the Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development. A luncheon crowd of hundreds of people waited for him in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel.

Haslam, who usually keeps a full but tight schedule, apologized repeatedly for being late when he finally got to the podium. Weather had delayed his return. He didn’t speak long. But the journey to Washington spoke volumes about Tennessee’s place in education reform in the Obama administration’s eyes.

Obama announced a new flexibility plan on NCLB for states engaged in education reform. The criteria to receive that flexibility fall in line with the reform effort going on in Tennessee, begun under former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Duncan gave high praise to Tennessee’s efforts when he appeared in Nashville in August at West End Middle School and at the offices of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Obama is seeking reforms that still include standards that will make students college-ready and career-ready, accountability in the education system and evaluating teachers and principals on their effectiveness. But the White House move appears to be an agreement that expectations in NCLB have proved to be simply impossible to reach.

So on Friday morning, Haslam stood in the East Room of the White House, thanking Duncan, saying while he doesn’t always agree with Obama there should be action when Republicans and Democrats do agree, and introducing the president. No one guaranteed Haslam would get what he wants on NCLB, but the sight of the East Room appeared to say he would.

“When they said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Well, please don’t ask us up there if you’re going to embarrass us down the road,'” Haslam said. “I think the message was: ‘We like the path that you’re on.'”

States across the country have complained about the standards required in the law as being unrealistic and not achievable. The Obama administration seems to agree. Tennessee has been involved in education reform that won $501 million in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition, showing the Obama administration likes what the state is doing.

The Obama administration issued criteria Friday that will give states that are working on reform the flexibility they seek. The White House noted that many states have adopted college- and career-ready standards and are implementing reforms in teacher and principal evaluations.

Obama said Friday a fresh approach will give states the opportunity to improve but will not serve as a reprieve from the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Law, which was adopted under former President George W. Bush.

Haslam said in his remarks at the White House that Tennessee is most qualified to make its own decisions about how to make progress in education. Tennessee’s efforts and the federal government’s position seem to match.

“We have talked with Secretary Duncan several times over the last five or six days,” Haslam said in Nashville Friday. “We talked about what their criteria are and where Tennessee stacks up.

“I think they feel really good about what we’ve submitted to them and what we’re doing in Tennessee, so I don’t have any final word, but I feel good about our position.”

Haslam was asked if the federal step to give more authority to the states is a weakening of standards.

“Here’s why it’s not weakening the standards,” he said. “No Child Left Behind, while it was about raising standards, it let every state set their own. Until last year, Tennessee set the standard really low. Then it just measured by whether you met your own bar. Tennessee did the right thing and set the bar higher.

“Now all of a sudden we’re on a path (with the original NCLB expectations) where 100 percent of our schools weren’t going to meet the standards. It’s much better to measure improvement.”

Haslam used one of his frequent analogies by comparing the situation to a workout exercise.

“If somebody said, ‘Bill Haslam, you should get in better shape, and I want you to run a four-minute mile next week,’ no way,” he said. “I can get in better shape, but if the goal is to run a four-minute mile, it’s not going to happen. If they measure my improvement, I can do that.

“We basically are going to use the accountability standards that are set out in Race to the Top in our winning application there. It’s one of the reasons we feel good about our application for a waiver. They’re asking states to do the same thing they asked in Race to the Top.”

Haslam viewed the invitation to the White House as acknowledgement of what the state is doing, but he spoke openly of the obvious political consideration in choosing a Republican governor to join the Democratic president in the ceremony.

“The things they are asking us to do, we are doing, in terms of focusing on the achievement gap, in terms of linking student performance to teacher evaluation,” Haslam said. “All the key things that the president talked about are the things we are doing in Tennessee, and I think are the right things to do as well. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go do that.

“I think they do want some states that they can give waivers to, and hopefully quickly, and say this is a state that’s on the right path. Obviously, politically, it doesn’t hurt to have a Republican governor up there with him, just to be truthful about it.”

Obama thanked Duncan, then thanked Haslam for being at the announcement and for “the great work that he’s doing in Tennessee.

“I’m especially appreciative because I found out that his daughter is getting married, and he is doing the ceremony tomorrow, so we’ve got to get him back on time.”