Blog: The Educated Reporter

Tennessee’s Haslam Aims for Mantle of Education Governor

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam addresses attendees at the 67th National Seminar.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam laughingly admitted during a speech at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar this week that his state hasn’t always been known as a “hotbed of education reform”—or frankly, a place known for its academic achievement.

Moreover, he wasn’t the state CEO who ushered in a series of dramatic education policy changes that has put the state on the national school reform map. Still, he said at the May 19 appearance in Nashville, he’s been the guy “standing in the doorway making sure we don’t retreat.”

The leader that follows a visionary—in this case former Gov. Phil Breseden—can expect to live “with the rebound that comes with the changes,” Haslam said. That’s “because after implementation is the inevitable pushback”—the realization that the hardest part of reform is not setting the goals or filling out the applications. In 2010, those goals and applications made Tennessee one of the first two states to win the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top grant competition. 

Last fall, Haslam took a victory lap after Tennessee’s fourth- and eighth-graders made the nation’s largest gain on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Tennessee moved from way back in the pack to No. 36 after rising 10 points in two years. The news made national headlines, a feature in the cap of a governor who a few months earlier had to drop his voucher proposal because members of his own party had planned to upstage him on the issue and weren’t backing down.

If you believe in the power of education to change your state’s trajectory, but you weren’t the guy who brought in $500 million in Race to the Top funds or retooled abysmally low standards after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an “F” for truth in advertisement on student proficiency levels, then you have to be inventive in how you go about making the vision your own.

Haslam’s done a number of things. If he’s telling the story in chronological order, he starts by saying that he hired two of the brightest minds in education, former Teach for America executive and lawyer Kevin Huffman as his state education chief and Yes Prep founder Chris Barbic as head of the state’s Achievement School District.

Barbic caught his eye early, notably for his vision for Yes Prep Public Schools, a charter management organization in Houston that serves largely poor Hispanic families and has grown to include 11 schools. In 2012, the CMO became the inaugural winner of the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, which comes with a $250,000 award. Barbic was in Tennessee by that time, leading its version of a state recovery district, a sprawling conglomerate of public schools selected because they are in the bottom 5 percent in student performance.

What Haslam knew was that Barbic—like Huffman, a TFA alum—had managed to get 100 percent of his Yes Prep seniors into college. “Fully 80 percent had completed. There are some wonderful, expensive, private K-12 institutions in this country that can’t say that,” Haslam said at the EWA conference.

Haslam credits Barbic for setting the “audacious” objective of turning the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools into the top 25 percent in five years: “It is Chris’s goal.”

Huffman has been Haslam’s envoy in attempting to weed out low-performing teachers. At Huffman’s urging, the state board of education tentatively passed a resolution last summer making it possible for teachers receiving the lowest performance ratings (1 on scale of 1-5) to lose their licenses if they didn’t improve after a year of academic probation and time spent with mentors.

Huffman took a beating in the public arena. A rural superintendent started a petition for his ouster and the others piled on. Haslam was steadfast, praising Huffman for his vision and courage. But in passing legislation sponsored by friends of the Tennessee Education Association in the 2014 session, lawmakers agreed with the union: Teachers could not lose their jobs based on test results alone.

Another of Haslam’s disappointments happened when the same body—this time on both sides of the aisle, but for completely different reasons—dug in its heels on the Common Core State Standards. Although lawmakers defeated a series of bills that would have dismantled the whole thing, Haslam couldn’t ward off a push to delay the assessment of the standards. So instead of preparing to give a Common Core-aligned test from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the state is putting out bids for a new assessment.

But by that time, Haslam was well down the road on what may be his signature contribution to an educated population in a state below average in the number of people with college degrees.

Besides essentially creating a Tennessee franchise of the Utah-based Western Governors University, an accredited, online university geared to working adults, Haslam launched Drive to 55, a campaign to raise the share of Tennesseans holding a postsecondary degree or credential by more than 20 percentage points by 2025.

Advancing that cause, this spring a triumphant Haslam signed a bill making community college free for any student who can maintain a 2.0 GPA, keep a mentor, and work a few hours of community service. By borrowing $34 million from the state lottery, Haslam set up an endowment to fund his dream of making the first two years of college free, another notch for a guy striving to be an education governor in a post-Race-to-the-Top state.

“If we could go to every Tennessean and say, ‘We’ll give you two years of community college absolutely free,’ it would change the culture of the state more than anything because free would get everyone’s attention,” he said. Nothing he has done has touched the people, he said, quite like that offer. “It resonates with people from all walks of life,” said Haslam, who is part-owner of the multibillion-dollar Pilot Flying J truck-stop company.

“If you are a sophomore in high school not going beyond 12th grade, now there is a realistic chance,” said Haslam, a governor who once thought his future might be in the ministry. “Now there is a realistic chance they will take high school a lot more seriously.”


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