Kevin Huffman is an avid runner. He jogs five miles a day. He runs marathons. And as Tennessee’s newly appointed commissioner of education, Huffman will need a fast start when he moves from Washington, D.C., to assume his post April 4, as Gov. Bill Haslam and Republicans in the state legislature have targeted education reform as a key issue this session.
As the fight over education reform between the two parties intensifies — and the teachers’ union voices concerns about perceived statewide GOP anti-teacher bias, most evident in the bills to strip the teachers’ union of collective bargaining and other powers — into the fray steps the energetic and enthusiastic Huffman, a 40-year-old former lawyer who made a national reputation for himself as vice president for public affairs at Teach For America.
Among other things, Huffman will manage the state’s $500 million in federal Race to the Top grants and its ongoing relationship with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged $90 million to the Memphis city schools.
Huffman is maintaining a frenetic pace as he tries to learn the unique business of education in Tennessee.
“Right out of the gate,” Huffman said, “I need to climb a very steep learning curve about Tennessee and the programs that are currently in place. I need to talk to a lot of people and listen carefully.”
And take some positions carefully, too.
When asked his opinion on state Republicans’ desire to eliminate teachers’ collective bargaining rights, Huffman deftly sidestepped.
“My focus is on other reform efforts — tenure reform, growing excellent charters and figuring out the human capital pipeline in the state,” said Huffman, who once taught bilingual first- and second-graders in Houston. “I’ll keep watching the collective bargaining discussion, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to engage as a newcomer who hasn’t even started yet.”
On the theme of tenure reform, which has also been on state Republicans’ list, Huffman said Haslam’s plan to increase the probation period for teachers seeking tenure from three to five years is “a good idea.”
Huffman said he favors charters schools, which teachers’ unions generally oppose but which have drawn collective admiration after early successes in the state, and especially in Nashville.
“We need excellent charters in every corner of the state,” he said. “And I will be as hard on low-performing charters as I will be on low-performing traditional schools. Charters come with an express agreement: more autonomy in exchange for commitment to results. That’s a bargain that everyone should encourage and enforce, and frankly I’d like to see more of that principle applied to traditional public schools, too.”
Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, declined to challenge Huffman’s view of charter schools.
“TEA has a history of good relationships with the state Department of Education and commissioners of education,” Summerford said. “We hope that the new commissioner will continue this tradition and consider the views of teachers.”
Erick Huth, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, a teachers’ union, said he knows very little about Huffman.
“I’m going to keep an open mind,” he said.
Huth’s familiarity with Huffman might be limited, but others know the man well. His amicable divorce from former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and his work with Teach For America, which trains college graduates and professionals to work as teachers in resource-lacking schools, have garnered national headlines.
In 2008, CBS Evening News reported on Teach For America’s bookkeeping troubles. CBS noted that despite TFA’s $75 million budget — a third of it coming from local school districts, state and federal governments — the nonprofit failed to properly audit its general finances. Huffman was interviewed for that piece and admitted to the failures.
He told The City Paper that TFA instituted stricter record-keeping measures from that point forward.
“The audit related to how we tracked expenses like meals for our teachers at the summer training, and TFA doubled down on its tracking systems,” he said. “Ultimately I think the whole experience was good for us.”
Huffman said he has encountered two kinds of criticism of Teach For America: “The legitimate debates about efficacy, which I find helpful and which ultimately help the organization get better, and the political and disingenuous, which is unhelpful.”
Huffman said he enjoys “pretty good relationships” with officials in the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Many members of teachers’ unions are critical of TFA, contending that the organization’s approach to teacher training contradicts conventional methods. For example, TFA is known for placing new teachers in the classroom after only five weeks of training.
“As long as we can look for common ground, identify things to push jointly, and are honest about identifying places where we can agree to disagree, we’ve had some really productive conversations,” he said.
Despite the negative media attention and TFA critics — including Citizens Against Government Waste — Huffman has advanced his career by making national contacts and showing a versatile skill set that combines education, fundraising, law and media.
A graduate of New York University School of Law (where he wrote an article for the law review on legal challenges to charter schools), Huffman went on to work as an associate at the D.C. law firm formerly known as Hogan & Hartson. He parlayed that experience into a job as TFA’s general counsel, managing the entity’s federal and local government relations and policy initiatives.
During his seven years heading Teach For America’s development efforts, Huffman led a 34 percent compound annual growth, raising the organization’s annual operating revenue from $11.2 million in 2000 to $114 million in 2008.
“Raising money for Teach For America ultimately came down to having a compelling vision and plan,” he said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of fundraising, but any funder — public sector or private sector —ultimately wants to invest in something that seems compelling and has a good chance of success.”
Huffman also served as a freelance opinion writer for the Washington Post. Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, said Huffman is “a man of many talents.”
“[Kevin] was chosen by readers after a rigorous competition to be our first Great American Pundit because he combined humor and insight in a very original way,” Hiatt said. “He lived up to readers’ expectations with columns and blog posts that were smart, original, often funny and often empathetic — all while he was holding down an important job at Teach For America.”
With all that luggage, Huffman enters a job in a state where education has traditionally been a backburner concern for a legislature more focused on social issues. Whether he’ll move it from mediocrity to a more respectable level will require time and stamina.
“It will be enormously challenging, of course,” he said, “but I am really excited about the potential.”