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Vote of Confidence for Huffman from Haslam

Governor says embattled Education Department chief still the right man for the job

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed his continued confidence in Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman Monday, telling reporters, “If I was going to hire an education commissioner again today, I would hire Kevin Huffman.”

“If you look at the state’s who are making the most progress in education, Tennessee is at the top of that list and Kevin gets a lot of credit for that,” Haslam continued.

Huffman has faced recent criticism, primarily from teachers’ groups and state Democrats, after his department successfully pushed an overhaul of the state’s public school teacher pay system through a Board of Education vote last month. As The Tennessean reported recently, the policy change has prompted opponents to call for Huffman’s ouster via Facebook and online petitioning.

While Haslam’s education agenda has received positive feedback from federal officials in the past — both in the form of funding from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program as well as praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan — push-back has come from various quarters on the state level, especially around the increasing presence of charter schools and the coming implementation of national Common Core standards in state classrooms.

But Monday, Haslam mostly shrugged off criticism. “The work we’re doing is hard. We’re saying we’re not satisfied being in the 40’s [in state rankings] when it comes to education,” said the governor. “We’re making those changes that I think will move us forward.”

And according to a related report today from The New Republic, Haslam’s and Huffman’s work has found a strong supporter in Huffman’s ex-wife, firebrand education reform activist and former D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee whose lobbying group, the magazine writes, has been giving Tennessee special attention and sizable cash injections in local elections.

Unionized teachers and minority-party Democrats in the Legislature have been complaining bitterly of late about a new teacher-salary plan approved by the state Board of Education last month. The plan, which goes into effect for new hires beginning in the upcoming school year, gives local school districts latitude to determine payment scales for teachers.

Some teachers and Democrats fear the move will will ultimately over time make teaching a less attractive field to young college grads. Huffman and the plan’s supporters, however, argue that it will in fact encourage higher-caliber prospects to apply.

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