Exclusive: Penny Schwinn, Influential Tennessee Education Chief, to Step Down

Known for overhauling literacy efforts and ushering in a tutoring initiative during the pandemic, she decried 鈥榙istracting鈥 culture war politics

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn talked to Julia Rafal-Baer, CEO of ILO Group, at last week鈥檚 Women Leading Ed summit. (ILO Group)

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Tennessee education chief Penny Schwinn, one of the nation鈥檚 most high-profile state superintendents, who worked to expand tutoring and revamp literacy during the toughest days of the pandemic, will announce today that she is stepping down, effective June 1.  

In addition to launching the to curb learning loss, Schwinn shepherded through the legislature and positioned Tennessee as the first state with a federally registered . At the same time, she told 成人抖阴 in an exclusive interview last week, she weathered distracting culture war battles over the way race and gender is taught in the state鈥檚 classrooms.

鈥淚 see it as extraneous politics and my job is to educate kids,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 knew that my charge, first and foremost, was to move our state forward.鈥

A Republican, Schwinn faced criticism from Democrats and GOP leaders alike for issues ranging from the teaching of American history to her support for charter schools.

Last fall, she told Republican Gov. Bill Lee that she didn鈥檛 plan to stay through his second term. Lee will appoint Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, a school choice advocate with experience in state and federal policy, to be her successor. 

Currently vice president of policy with nonprofit ExcelinEd 鈥 which has been instrumental in the rapid expansion of education savings accounts in Republican-led states 鈥 Reynolds said she plans to pick up where Schwinn left off. 

鈥淚t鈥檚 an absolute joy to be tapped for this role and to continue this work,鈥 she said.

Before her work at ExcelinEd, Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds served as chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency. She also worked for the U.S. Department of Education for former secretaries Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings. (Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds)

A former Teach for America leader from California, Schwinn held high-level positions in the Delaware and Texas education agencies before Lee appointed her commissioner in 2019. She had a rocky start in Tennessee, initially facing criticism from lawmakers for being an outsider. Even though she鈥檚 a Republican, her policies were by more conservative members of her own party. But under her leadership, the state won praise from for requiring districts to use a , training teachers in those methods and providing free curriculum resources.

鈥淒r. Schwinn has successfully executed a culture and curriculum shift to the science of reading that no other Tennessee state commissioner could do,鈥 said Sonya Thomas, executive director of Nashville Propel, a parent advocacy organization. 鈥淯nder her leadership, we have become a national leader in literacy reform.鈥

Julia Rafal-Baer, founder of ILO Group, a consulting firm focused on leadership opportunities for women in education, added that Schwinn has had a 鈥渟eismic impact鈥 as commissioner, inspiring other women in the profession. On Friday, Schwinn addressed members of of women superintendents, where she spoke in part about the importance of navigating politics in the top job.

鈥淚 said to keep kids as your north star because that鈥檚 common ground,鈥 she said. 鈥淚gnore the distractions and get a thick skin because everything in education is personal, but you can鈥檛 take it personally.鈥

Tennessee has been in the spotlight not just for post-pandemic recovery efforts, but also for a legislative proposal to phase out federal funding, as well as controversies over and the state鈥檚 ban on receiving . 

In 2021, a state Moms for Liberty chapter their complaint about the Williamson County district鈥檚 use of an elementary reading curriculum, which includes the children鈥檚 book 鈥淩uby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story.鈥 The autobiography recounts Bridges鈥檚 experience as the first Black student to desegregate an all-white school in New Orleans. But some to the book鈥檚 use of words such as 鈥渋njustice鈥 and 鈥渦nequal鈥 and references to 鈥渁 large crowd of angry white people.鈥

The complaint focused on lessons during the 2020-21 school year. Schwinn largely sidestepped the issue, responding that the law requiring the state to investigate possible violations didn鈥檛 kick in until the following year.

From Democrats, she鈥檚 faced criticism for her ties to charter schools (she founded one in Sacramento) and questions about possible conflicts of interest involving her husband, Paul Schwinn, a leadership coach for TNTP. The nonprofit, which works in districts to improve teacher quality, with the state as part of its reading initiative, but Schwinn received approval from the state and promised to distance herself from the agreement.

鈥淲hichever side you’re on or whichever kind of philosophy you have, there’s always another push that is frankly very distracting,鈥 Schwinn said. 鈥淚t can come from the left or the right, and I think it has really decimated our leadership nationally.鈥 

Of the 38 states where superintendents are appointed and not elected, Tennessee will be the 17th to have since January 2022 鈥 a mark of the widespread leadership turnover in the profession since the pandemic.

Tennessee Commissioner Penny Schwinn testified before Congress in July 2020 on safely reopening schools. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

But John Bailey, a consultant and visiting fellow for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted that Schwinn had a longer run than some state chiefs. , appointed Virginia education chief by Gov. Glen Youngkin in January 2022, recently stepped down after just a year. She previously spent eight years leading Wyoming鈥檚 education department.

Schwinn鈥檚 鈥渟uperpower,鈥 Bailey said, has been her ability to 鈥渂ridge differences that are sometimes political and sometimes just normal policy tensions.鈥

鈥楩oundation of success鈥

Schwinn noted, for example, last year to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to highlight the state鈥檚 grow-your-own teacher preparation program.

鈥淚 have a great relationship with that administration as I serve very loyally my own,鈥 she said, calling Lee 鈥渦nwaveringly supportive鈥 during her tenure. 鈥淗e said, 鈥楶enny, go do your job, and your job is to make sure our kids are accelerating faster than ever before.鈥 鈥 

Schwinn and Lee worked together to gather public input on how the state funds schools. On top of a base amount for each student, the new system provides additional funding for students with greater needs as well as ongoing funding for tutoring, early literacy and career and technical education.

In a statement Monday, Lee said, “Penny has played a key role in our administration鈥檚 work to ensure educational opportunity for Tennessee students and secure the next generation of teachers, while navigating historic learning challenges.”

Last year, Schwinn showing Tennessee students had largely recovered from pandemic-related declines, which leaders attributed partly to recovery efforts like tutoring and summer school. But those wins quickly were overshadowed by sharp declines in math and reading performance on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, especially in the . The mismatch is not unusual. State tests more closely cover state standards than the national test. Students also took NAEP before tutoring efforts were widely implemented.

Meanwhile, the state鈥檚 effort to turn around performance in many Memphis schools has been a disappointment, Schwinn said.

Since the Achievement School District began a decade ago, the schools involved , academic gains. The state is now , reducing the number of charter school operators running schools. But Schwinn added, 鈥淚 regret that we didn’t move faster on that. The kids deserved us to move faster.鈥

She also regrets not spending more time on students鈥 mental health. She called on the issue 鈥 which lists suicide as the third leading cause of death among 14- to 18-year olds 鈥 鈥渇rightening鈥 and said the state still needs 鈥渁 really clear, tight and well-articulated plan鈥 to respond to students in crisis. 

Early in the pandemic, she took heat from GOP state lawmakers for a plan to use $1 million in federal COVID relief funds for districts to conduct 鈥渨ell-being checks,鈥 particularly for students who didn鈥檛 participate in remote learning while schools were closed.

House Education Administration Committee Chair Mark White, for example, he received calls from parents concerned about government intrusion. And Rep. Scott Cepicky suggested Schwinn was more concerned with her own agenda and didn鈥檛 consult with those 鈥渆lected by the people of Tennessee.鈥

“I think there’s still a huge lack of communication to the General Assembly and to [local] superintendents and school boards,” Cepicky said Monday. “I think that was one of the pitfalls of Commissioner Schwinn and her regime.”

Schwinn declined to say what she鈥檒l be doing next, but said she has 鈥渜uite a few good opportunities鈥 and expects to make a decision in about a month.

Reynolds, her successor, said her first priority will be ensuring eligible families can take advantage of the state鈥檚 targeted ESA program. It鈥檚 currently open to students in Shelby and Davidson counties, which include Memphis and Nashville, respectively. This year, , which encompasses Chattanooga.

鈥淓SAs are the most flexible form of school choice,鈥 Reynolds said. 鈥淚鈥檓 excited to take the work we鈥檝e done nationally [at ExcelinEd] and implement our ESA program in Tennessee.鈥

She鈥檒l also oversee the next phase of academic recovery efforts and lead the state through  the financial challenges expected as federal relief funds run out in 2024. 

鈥淭he good news is that she gets to build on this foundation of success,鈥 Bailey said. 鈥淪he has a lot of momentum.鈥

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