Huffman Departure Elicits Mixed Feelings Among TN Politicians

With the announcement that Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s oft-criticized education chief, is not planning to return to Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet for a second term, questions surround who will fill that role next.

But while many in the General Assembly feel a Volunteer State native would be best suited to the job of leading the state’s public education system, Haslam says his primary concern is finding the best person for the job regardless of where they’re from.

“I always start with get the best person, but obviously it’s a home-field advantage to be from here,” Haslam told reporters after his speech at the annual Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development in Nashville Friday.

Although Huffman was a lightning rod for critics of the state’s recent education reforms, Haslam said he would have liked the former Teach for America executive to stick around. However, Huffman felt it was best for him and his family for him to return to the private sector, Haslam said.

While the governor doesn’t “think it’s appropriate to talk about possible successors at this point,” he said they’re going to use the “same process” they use to find the best people for every vacancy. Haslam added the process is a little different this year because he knows more people than four years ago when he first took office as governor.

Right now, Haslam said he will first begin to approach people for advice, and next see if people are interested in the position. The governor said he’ll be looking for someone “committed to having high standards,” who also understands the process the state is going through in reviewing those standards.

Haslam recently announced a review of the state’s academic standards with the stated goal of ensuring Tennessee maintains high standards in education, while at the same time mitigating the controversy that surrounds Common Core, the national academic standards the state has been implementing over the past several years.

The Tennessean recently reported some names for Huffman’s successor that have been floated by political observers. Those names include Kathleen Airhart, deputy Tennessee education commissioner, Stephen Smith, assistant commissioner of policy and legislation, and a few school superintendents, such as Jim McIntyre of Knox County Schools or Lyle Ailshie of Kingsport City Schools. Jamie Woodson, a former state senator from Knoxville who now heads the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, and Candice McQueen, dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education, are two names that have also been discussed as having an outside chance.

Several members of the General Assembly — from both parties and chambers — are saying the new head of the Volunteer State’s public education system ought to be a native Tennessean.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris told TNReport that Tennessee has “a lot of homegrown talent.” Haslam shouldn’t “have to look far to find somebody who continues to work with us to raise standards in Tennessee,” said Norris, R-Collierville.

State Reps. Johnnie Turner and G.A. Hardaway, both Memphis Democrats, also told TNReport they’d prefer the new state education chief be someone who is already a Tennessean. While an outsider might bring different perspectives to the discussion, Turner said, there are often people from within the state who might be aware of those other perspectives — but “because we have our Tennessee roots, we would not give our constituents — other Tennesseans, the feeling that an outsider is coming in, telling us what to do.”

Now would be the time to “get it right, as far as competence and communications,” said Hardaway. He added that appointing someone from Tennessee — where there are “plenty of intelligent, competent leaders in the educational arena”– would help improve the communication aspect.

And it appears the desire for better communication from the executive branch on the issue of education is a bipartisan one.

Rick Womick, a rural Rutherford County representative who is challenging Republican state Rep. Beth Harwell for her post as House speaker in the next session, said last week that he hopes Haslam takes “into consideration the wishes of the legislature since we will ultimately have to pass judgment on his education agenda.” The departure of Huffman “is long overdue and allows us to come together to focus on how to rectify the education debacle we have experienced over the last four years in Tennessee,” Womick said.

“I think what the governor’s done is given him an opportunity to bow out and resign without being fired so he can press on, and go wherever he wants to go without having that on his record,” Womick told TNReport last week. “I think that’s noble, but at the same time the real question is who is the governor going to put in his place?” he said.

Womick was one of 15 Republican legislators to sign a letter calling for Huffman’s resignation over the Summer.

And Mike Sparks, a Smyrna Republican who also signed the letter calling for Huffman’s ouster, said last week the education chief’s resignation is “good news,” and it meant Haslam “has seen the backlash of it.”

But Franklin Rep. Glen Casada, last session’s GOP Caucus chairman, said it’s “to be expected” and he doesn’t believe it’s related to Common Core. “Many of the commissioners promised the governor one term,” and it’s “typical” for commissioners to exit for private sector jobs at the end of a governor’s first term, he said.

The position of education chief isn’t the only recently announced Haslam administration vacancy. Haslam also recently announced the departure of Economic & Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty, who, according to a press release, will be returning to the private sector after he c0-chairs Haslam’s inauguration committee. The ECD chief’s name has been discussed as a possible Republican gubernatorial contender for 2018.