Noise surrounding Kevin Huffman has reached a fever pitch, amplified by new calls for his resignation and fueling speculation over how long Tennessee's beleaguered education commissioner plans to stay.
That question is even more pressing because of the political calendar: Gov. Bill Haslam, who has remained loyal to Huffman, is on track for likely re-election to a second term, which often brings turnover to a governor's Cabinet anyways.
An aide to the Tennessee Department of Education chief provided little insight when asked how long Huffman, who arrived in Tennessee three years ago, would stay in his position after 15 Republican lawmakers, most tea party-affiliated, called for his resignation in a stinging letter to Haslam last week.
"The commissioner is focused on getting ready for the coming school year, which is an important year for Tennessee students," education spokeswoman Ashley Ball said. She did not address a question about whether Huffman planned to serve in a potential second term.
Whispers on just how much the former Teach for America executive is willing to take — and how long the governor wants to keep a polarizing education official — were already being heard after a steady drumbeat of criticism over the past year.
It began in September when nearly 60 superintendents sent Haslam a letter criticizing Huffman's leadership.
It continued during the most recent legislative session when some of his reforms, as well as the continuation of Common Core standards, came under attack. And it's now hit a climax after his delay in releasing Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results last month prompted a pack of disgruntled GOP lawmakers to unleash a wide range of accusations as well as a call for him to immediately step down.
Gains didn't quiet critics
In the midst of all of this, there was news in November about historic gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But despite that triumph, which Huffman began noting in public speeches, critics didn't quiet down.
"What happened is some of the detractors started to get louder," Huffman noted at a TEDxNashville speech this spring.
Days after the NAEP announcement, Huffman had told The Tennessean that he had "literally never" had a conversation with Haslam about serving into the governor's second term.
Lacking credible election challengers, Haslam has little need to worry about Huffman becoming a campaign liability. A leadership transition now also could give the appearance of bending to critics, a position no politician desires. Instead, if there is an exit in the coming year, some observers believe it probably would come after the governor's presumed re-election in November.
Haslam aides have said the governor will have a conversation about Huffman's future, as well as every other commissioner, if he is re-elected. The governor, though, has given no indication publicly that he desires a change.
"I understand that Commissioner Huffman is controversial," Haslam said Monday. "I also understand that we're doing a lot of difficult things in education."
Haslam has defended Huffman when he's come under fire multiple times now — amid pushback from superintendents and now after the 15 Republicans cited a "complete lack of trust" with the education department in a letter demanding a resignation.
In a sharp rebuke, Haslam spokesman Dave Smith accused the group of choosing a "political stunt instead of constructive dialogue," noting that the office had reached out to the lawmakers earlier in the week.
Rock star in education world
There are those who predict Huffman, who has family in Nashville, may desire to stay in Tennessee — not back down — to prove the skeptics wrong. Criticism, some education reformers say, is just part of the drill with making big policy changes. Others believe the right opportunity would have to sway him.
Huffman, a favorite of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is a virtual rock star in the education world, a figure watched closely because of the new ground he broke by making the jump from Teach for America to a state education agency.
He's one of a handful of state education commissioners who are part of the reform group Chiefs for Change launched by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, in a statement last week, said she's proud of Haslam's accomplishments in education reform and that the state is on the right path.
"Change is always difficult," she said. "But setting personalities and managerial styles aside, I know Governor Haslam and this General Assembly want to do what is best for the children of this state."
Huffman's loudest critics are an unlikely coalition of conservatives from the right and Democrats and traditional education union groups from the left.
Lawmakers calling for Huffman to step down number barely one out of every 10 in the Tennessee General Assembly, but the coalition of critics stretches both parties.
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh called the governor's initial response last week "dismissive for a letter that came from 15 or so members of his own party."
"It's not like we haven't heard this before," Fitzhugh said. "I would think many in my own caucus feel much the same way, too."
Fitzhugh, though, stopped short of calling for Huffman's resignation, adding that it's the governor's call.
Until there's clarity on Huffman's future — which may not be until 2015 — educators will monitor the situation.
"There's been some really good things that have happened, and there's been some things that were really frustrating, and I'm sure they're going to evaluate all that and decide what it is they want to do next," said Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.