Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn to resign

Schwinn has served as Gov. Bill Lee’s only head of the education department, overseeing the passage of school vouchers and a significant change to school funding formula

By: - May 1, 2023 2:48 pm
Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right. with former Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, at a 2020 press conference.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right. with former Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, at a 2020 press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced her resignation Monday after four years in the post, a time in which education issues ran from private school vouchers to a new K-12 funding formula.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, vice president of the nonprofit ExcelinEd, is to replace her when she steps down June 1, an education news outlet reported.

Schwinn’s resignation drew mixed reviews from lawmakers.

Under Schwinn’s leadership, the state gained increased funding, putting an extra $1 billion into K-12 schools last year, pushing the total to about $9.6 billion. Tennessee also changed its K-12 education funding model.

Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire had kind words for Schwinn, noting she worked to solve problems with Hamilton County schools.

“I always got along great with her,” Gardenhire said. The Chattanooga Republican sponsored legislation this year to expand vouchers there.

Schwinn’s tenure as education commissioner was tumultuous

When Gov. Bill Lee selected Schwinn as his education commissioner in 2019, he immediately started the push for an education savings program better know as school vouchers. The program, which was delayed after a protracted legal battled, used state funds to send low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts to private schools. Schwinn ultimately said she supported the program during a House committee hearing.

In 2020, facing the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the state shut down periodically or offered virtual classes to students to keep classrooms from becoming breeding grounds for the virus. The next year, the legislature spent some $120 million for summer programs and extra tutoring to deal with what educators called “learning loss.” 

The department also experienced problems with the administration of TNReady, the end-of-year test used to determine how well students, teachers and districts are performing.

In fall of 2020, Schwinn found herself on the hot seat after lawmakers discovered the Department of Education started a Child Wellbeing Check program through local school districts — monthly visits into the homes of children from birth to age 18 — that lawmakers considered “overreach.”

Schwinn also dealt with some personal situations, including a case in which the state inked a $16 million contract with New York-based TNTP Inc., a company that employed her husband. Schwinn ultimately received approval for a “mitigation” plan from the state to avoid conflicts of interest.

Lee selected Schwinn to run the Department of Education even though a Texas audit found she failed to follow rules for a no-bid $4.4 million contract on special education.

She caught the ire of Tennessee lawmakers for approving a $2.5 million no-bid contract with Florida-based ClassWallet, using Career Ladder funds for teacher salaries, to run the Education Savings Account program.

Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville called Schwinn’s departure a positive move for the state.

“Good riddance. No one has done more to harm our public schools and strategically undermine teachers than Penny Schwinn, in lockstep coordination with Bill Lee,” Clemmons said.

Clemmons, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said it could take years to “undo the damage” that Lee and Schwinn have “intentionally” done to public schools.

Democrats contend Schwinn and Lee have chipped away at the state’s public school system by starting the voucher program for private school enrollment and enabling charter schools to open and flourish, in part by setting up a state charter school commission that has the authority to override local decisions on charters.

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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 from the Tennessee Press Association.