Lawmakers warn education commissioner about reading screener contract

By: - January 26, 2021 4:01 am
The Cordell Hull Legislative Building. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Cordell Hull Legislative Building. (Photo: John Partipilo)

At least two state legislators are urging caution about an education contract that could push school districts to a specific vendor and, ultimately, mire the state in a money pit.

The warnings came amid questions about whether the state is already talking to vendors about a “universal screener” contract. Education Commission Penny Schwinn denied any wrongdoing, saying talks with vendors would not be allowed under state law once the procurement process begins.

Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo:
Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo:

During the Tennessee Legislature’s special session on education, both Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, and Senate Minority Chairman Jeff Yarbro questioned Schwinn about the Education Department’s plan to contract with a “universal screener” to determine whether third-graders are making progress in math and reading. They also asked whether the state is working with potential vendors already.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly in the special session allots about $3 million for a “universal screener,” even though most school districts contract with companies that provide those services, using state Basic Education Program funds. The Department of Education plans to offer the “universal screener” free to districts that decide to drop their own contracts and take up the state vendor.

Schwinn said the department was in the process of “moving forward with a universal screener” but noted that is separate from the legislation passed last week. That involved talking to superintendents about what they want they want in the program.

“Once we see if something passes … then we would be able to move into the more formal process of actually developing a scope of services and moving into a procurement process. Right now, it’s just about getting early feedback,” Schwinn said.

The idea is for the state to own the information if it controls the contract and hires the vendor, according to Schwinn.

Watson and Yarbro, however, said the state needs to beware of starting a new program that puts pressure on districts to use it instead of programs they know are effective.

Watson, a Hixson Republican, pointed out Hamilton County Schools district already uses what it considers a good assessment, one that about 30% of districts statewide are using.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“And everybody’s starting to migrate toward a common tool that is nationally normed, reliable and valid versus a state test that might not meet those same standards,” Watson said.

He raised fears about the Department of Education joining a “history” of technological products that wind up costing more in the end. He pointed toward problems the state has encountered with the unemployment technology system, Project Edison, the state’s payroll and accounting system, which cost upwards of $250 million and required a restart, and the state’s Department of Correction computer program.

“It’s a great idea, but we don’t have the skill set to do it,” Watson said, adding he will pay “close attention” to how the Education Department takes feedback from school districts.

Watson also contended that districts choosing to keep their vendors will be “financially responsible” while those who go with the state’s vendor will have “no financial responsibility.”

Schwinn countered that districts sticking with the own vendors would have the same cost while others would reduce their expenses.

Republicans and Democrats alike have questioned Schwinn’s decisions for the last two years.

Shortly before taking the oath of office in early 2019, Gov. Bill Lee made Schwinn his education commissioner even though a Texas audit found she failed to follow rules for a no-bid $4.4 million contract on special education, according to reports.

Schwinn held state leadership positions in Delaware and Texas education departments while still serving as interim executive director of Capitol Collegiate Academy in Sacramento, California, a charter school she founded, according to documents. She resigned the post before taking the Tennessee commissioner job.

In Tennessee, she came under fire from lawmakers in 2019 for a no-bid, $2.53 million contract over two years with Florida-based ClassWallet to handle distribution of state funds as part of the Education Savings Account program. The voucher program is on hold after being found unconstitutional. The contract, which paid $1.2 million last year, was done through a grant and did not go through a competitive bid or the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee.

Legislators put early childhood literacy legislation on hold in early 2020, believing it was being steered to certain vendors.

In early 2019, Gov. Bill Lee made Schwinn his education commissioner even though a Texas audit found she failed to follow rules for a no-bid $4.4 million contract on special education, according to reports.  She later came under fire in Tennessee for a no-bid, $2.53 million contract with a Florida company to distribute state funds as part of the Education Savings Account program, which has been declared unconstitutional. 

But armed with $100 million in federal funds, the state is taking requests for proposals already on a phonics-based reading program schools are to put in place. Initiatives passed in the special session last week include a bump in teacher pay, summer schools for reading, a plan to hold teachers and schools harmless for poor student test scores and a requirement for third-graders to score high enough on tests or be held back.

At the rate they’re performing, about 62% of students could have to repeat third grade, costing the state hundreds of millions over a few years. But they could move on if they retest and do better or go to summer reading camps and improve.

That’s where the “universal screener” enters the equation by determining whether children are improving.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro during 2020 legislative session. (Photo: submitted)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro during 2020 legislative session. (Photo: submitted)

Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, asked Schwinn pointedly if the Education Department had been consulting with any potential vendors for developing the “screener” program or a professional development program for the pending 360 Reading request for proposals.

“No, as soon as you go into procurement, state law prohibits anyone at the department involved in that procurement from having conversations,” Schwinn responded. “And just to make sure everyone’s clear, from a process perspective, I don’t actually participate on procurements, nor do I sign the contracts.”

In response to questions from Tennessee Lookout, the Department of Education issued a statement saying it would take competitive bids if the bill passed to develop a screener aligned with Tennessee standards, the state’s intervention processes and dyslexia law.

A contract for the Reading 360 program built on phonics instruction is set to be executed in a matter of weeks, Schwinn told the Senate Finance Committee.

Afterward, Yarbro said lawmakers should “always be concerned” that the state is following the highest standards for contracting.

“My bigger concern is that I think the biggest need for schools is to get support to school districts, not to have new contracts run out of the state Department of Education,” he said.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.