Education Department Commissioner Kevin Huffman said last Thursday that the scrutiny he received during his nearly four turbulent years at the helm of the state’s schools didn’t influence his decision to leave for the private sector.
Huffman, whose departure was announced by Gov. Bill Haslam, has been a lightning rod whose policies and strong advocacy for Common Core standards made him a target for conservatives and teachers’ groups.
Huffman told The Associated Press he knew what he was getting into when he took the job.
“The governor brought me here as a change agent,” he said. “And I knew full well that coming here and having an agenda of changing some of the things that had always been done was going to create some noise and some controversy, it just sort of comes with the territory.”
In June, a letter signed by 15 Republican lawmakers demanded Huffman’s resignation, citing complaints from school administrators, teachers and students about his leadership style as his department implemented a series of changes in K-12 education.
State Rep. Rick Womick of Murfreesboro was among those who signed the letter. Womick said Thursday that he’s willing to work with the next education commissioner, but remains firm on certain issues, such as the ultimate repeal of the state’s Common Core standards.
“If we’re going to go down the same path of not repealing common core, then there’s going to be issues with that,” Womick said.
The June letter followed a petition signed by nearly half of the state’s superintendents last year who argued that Huffman had “no interest in a dialogue” with local school leaders as he made policy changes.
One of his proposals sought to tie teacher licensing to standardized test scores. The State Board of Education ultimately voted against the measure, and lawmakers passed a bill during the last legislative session to ban such a policy.
Critics said the proposal was an example of Huffman’s disconnect with teachers.
“The idea that you would threaten to destroy that license and that career based … on test scores, just showed a complete lack of knowledge on the realities of education and what teachers face every day,” Jim Wrye, assistant executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said Thursday.
House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley agreed.
“While the hard work of our teachers has certainly produced some positive results, these outcomes would be much greater without the culture of hostility and mistrust created by the Department of Education,” Fitzhugh said in a statement on Thursday.
Despite the criticism, Haslam repeatedly defended Huffman, and did so once again in Thursday’s news release, citing reforms that he said improved student learning. Haslam said those changes led to results last year from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, that showed Tennessee students leading the nation in academic improvement.
“Improving education in Tennessee has been a top priority for our administration, and having someone of Kevin’s caliber to lead the charge during this time of significant progress has made a difference,” Haslam said.
The announcement comes one day after Haslam announced that Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty is also leaving for the private sector.
The Republican governor didn’t say specifically what Hagerty will be doing, but Huffman told The Associated Press he will stay until the first of January then maybe do some consulting and writing.
“I think it’s almost impossible in a job like this to think about what you’re going to do next, because the job is just so all encompassing,” Huffman said. “I feel like I need a little distance and a little perspective before I dive into something new.”
In an email to The AP, Haslam spokesman David Smith said, “this is a natural time for transition.” He added that the governor “appreciates their service and wishes them well.”
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