Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman visits Whitney Achievement Elementary in Memphis earlier this month. AP photo.
NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam says he was disappointed to hear of a petition signed by nearly half of the states’ school superintendents that raised serious concerns about Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
The Republican governor in a letter to superintendents released Tuesday stood by Huffman and the initiatives he has championed, saying that the commissioner has brought a “new perspective and dynamic energy to education reform in Tennessee.”
The petition originated with Dan Lawson, director of the Tullahoma City Schools, and alleges that Huffman’s office “has no interest in a dialogue” with local officials and the superintendents’ efforts to improve their schools are being thwarted by low teacher morale because of policy changes on the state level.
“It has become obvious to the signees that our efforts to acquire a voice within this administration is futile,” according to the petition.
“Today we feel that we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued,” the letter said.
Lawson and the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents did not immediately return calls to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
In his letter, Haslam called for “a fresh approach to communication” between the school districts and state education officials.
“The bottom line is that we are at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms that I believe will lead to continued progress in education, and this work is simply too important to get sidetracked,” Haslam wrote.
Lawson has said his concerns were sparked when Huffman and the Haslam administration decided to withhold $3.4 million in state education funding from Nashville over its school board’s refusal to authorize a charter school.
“I find that disconcerting, disappointing and heavy-handed,” he said.
Teachers groups have criticized Huffman for calling for changes to the minimum teacher salary schedule for new teachers, reducing steps in salary increases from 21 to four and eliminating incentives for doctorate degrees and post-master’s training. They also oppose his proposal for tying teacher licenses to student test data.
Huffman joined Haslam’s cabinet in 2011. He was previously vice president of public affairs at Teach for America, a program that has tried to improve classroom teaching by placing recent college graduates in low-income schools and is often criticized by teacher unions.