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Vote of Confidence for Huffman from Haslam

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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Education Featured

House Dems, TEA Blast Huffman’s Teacher Pay Proposal

Proposed changes to the way Tennessee public school teachers are paid have state House Democrats and teachers’ unions bristling.

During a press event at the state Capitol, party leaders on Thursday blasted a proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that would alter Tennessee’s minimum teacher salary schedule and, according to opponents, drastically reduce the amount teachers earn over the span of their careers.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is set to present the plan to State Board of Education Friday, after which the board could vote to approve it.

Critics’ concerns about the plan include the reduction of seniority-based pay categories from the current 21 steps to just four possible raises over the course of a career. There would also be fewer pay increases available for teachers who earn advanced degrees.

Jim Wrye, a representative for the state’s main teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, described the proposal as a “fundamental gutting of that state minimum salary schedule.”

“We think that it’s going to increase inequities,” Wrye told reporters. “We think that it’s going to cause mid-career teachers to see no pay raises for long periods of time.

“Requiring a minimum for a salary has a real way of leveraging [state education] money to make sure that teachers across the state at least make a middle class wage,” he said.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh expressed concern during the press conference that the revised pay schedule would make it harder for the state to attract talented teachers. “We break our commitment to teachers by doing this and we really put a chilling effect on recruitment of teachers,” the Ripley Democrat said. “Lord, we don’t pay them enough in the first place…I don’t know that we can get career teachers anymore.”

Fitzhugh also argued that the plan would discourage teachers from pursuing advanced degrees and career development training.

“There will be no more, to a great degree, incentive for teachers to get an advanced degree,” said Fitzhugh. “And what are you saying to our children? That advanced degree is no longer important. Going into higher education on an elevated basis doesn’t matter any more because we don’t even think it matters when your teacher gets a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. We’re not going to pay him or her any more for that.”

But that logic doesn’t quite fly with at least one Republican lawmaker. Reached by phone Thursday, GOP House Caucus Chair Glen Casada of Franklin told TNReport, “I know in the business world, you don’t get paid because you have an M.B.A behind your name.”

Casada said he did have some “reservations” about possible reductions in teachers’ minimum earning potential but echoed the line often touted by Republican education reform advocates that bonuses and raises should be awarded based purely on measured performance rather than experience or education.

Fitzhugh himself addressed that point Thursday. “I’m all for paying for productivity, paying for excellence, but you don’t do that at the expense of teachers, initially, by lowering their pay,” he said.