Grifters on Parade: Gov. Haslam's Business Prowess Isn't Exactly Creating Better Government

Knox County schools have some spending money thanks to a few federal and charitable grants. In a planning document published last month, the school system floated the idea of hiring 100 new teachers. Money has become available for computer equipment and for security systems and personnel.

This should be cause for optimism, but instead of relief, Tennessee teachers are feeling demoralized. Progress at the local level has been undermined by state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

With Bill Haslam in the governor's mansion, the same ethos that guided Pilot Oil to prominence and then penitence is now in effect in Nashville. Several state departments are under investigation for dubious contract agreements.

The Department of Children's Services is in shambles after dozens of children with DCS case files died from abuse and neglect. Haslam appointee Kate O'Day replaced numerous senior staffers in the agency, treating the positions as political plums rather than critical jobs. She resigned shortly after the debacle came to light.

Many Tennessee educators are hoping Huffman will be next to go. More than 60 superintendents across the state have signed on to a letter calling for Huffman's removal, and petitions to that end are in circulation. Huffman is an attorney who served for years on the board of Teach for America, a non-profit organization that promotes charter schools.

The superintendents' letter said, "We have begun to feel that the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers school teachers, principals, and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners...Instead of a receptive ear, our overtures have been met with scripted messages and little interest...It has become obvious to the signees that our effort to acquire a voice within this administration is futile."

Huffman has worked toward increasing the number of charter schools in Tennessee, going so far as to fine Nashville Metro government over $3 million for rejecting a charter application. He has also taken several steps toward weakening teachers' job security, undermining tenure and linking employment to student test scores. A critical vote on tenure was conducted during a conference call, prompting outrage from state legislators in both parties.

Before joining the Haslam administration, Huffman had launched a career in punditry, penning several opinion columns for U.S. News & World Report. He is a moderate in the "what's all the fuss about?" vein, but his actions as education commissioner have been those of a radical union buster.

Haslam and Huffman are promising to raise teacher salaries. They call it a long-term goal, though they are talking it up like it already happened. Perhaps they are waiting until their reforms drive more higher-salaried teachers from the job. Maybe they need another reform or two to assure the new jobs go to Teach for America graduates.

Whatever the grift turns out to be, teacher morale is plummeting. So is voter morale.

America has been trying to pass health care reform since before Clinton took office, and now that we have taken a step in that direction, Republicans (and health care grifters) are desperately trying to prevent the accomplishment. It is pathetic to witness.

Bill Haslam had a great chance to show off his business prowess. He could have set up a health care exchange for Tennessee. Kentucky did it. Haslam took $8 million in federal funds and produced nothing but the aborted thought that perhaps imitating Arkansas would be worthwhile.

Tennessee actually had a promising health care market for a brief time. It was called TennCare, and it was driven to cost overruns by all the Kentuckians who signed up claiming to be from Tennessee. Now Kentucky has one of the best exchanges in the country and we have nothing but whatever the feds can manage to cobble together.

Maybe it's time to start relying on ourselves. We definitely can't rely on Haslam.