An educator who began her career with Teach For America and has been the academic chief for Texas will be Tennessee’s next education commissioner.
Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by Gov.-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.
She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for school programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.
Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator, and his announcement touted her work in Texas to repair the state’s testing program and expand ways to get students ready for college and career.
“Penny leads with students at the forefront,” Lee said, “and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years.”
Schwinn is one of Lee’s last cabinet hires before he’s sworn in on Saturday, and she will be one of his highest-profile commissioners. The governor-elect pledged to improve public education in a state that has seen gains on national tests in recent years, even as it has struggled to transition to online exams with its own testing program.
Schwinn is viewed as a student-focused reformer but also has been criticized for the changes that she shepherded in multiple states.
“Whenever you’re talking about school improvement, that is a very difficult conversation because we’re talking about our kids and we’re often talking about change,” she told Chalkbeat. “At the end of the day, our work is about the students and what we do for them.”
Before taking her job in Texas, she was an assistant education secretary in Delaware, and previously served as an assistant superintendent in Sacramento, California, where she grew up and was an elected school board member.
She started her education career in 2004 with Teach For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs, and taught high school history and economics for Baltimore public schools. Returning to her hometown, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students similar to those that her mother taught for four decades.
Last year, she was the youngest of three finalists to be considered for Massachusetts’ education commissioner, a job that went to Jeffrey Riley, a native of the state.
In Tennessee, Schwinn will execute Lee’s vision on policies affecting about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.
She said that she and Lee are committed to providing all Tennessee children with access to a high-quality education and share values of transparency and honesty in reporting how students are progressing — all priorities of the previous Republican administration under Gov. Bill Haslam.
“Tennessee is a bellwether state in our country right now. The growth and improvement that we’ve seen here is impressive, and it needs to be built on,” Schwinn said.
With his choice, Lee has gone outside of Tennessee and traditional classroom training, so she will have to work steadily to build trust with the state’s numerous stakeholders in public education. Groups that represent superintendents and teachers had urged the Republican businessman to choose homegrown talent with a deep knowledge of education policy in Tennessee.
Schwinn spent much of Thursday in Nashville meeting with educators and school advocates and was welcomed with optimism.
“Schwinn shares Governor-elect Bill Lee’s commitment to support teachers, reduce our testing burden, and improve the working invironment, including more compensation,” said JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, an organization representing teachers.
Several leaders noted that her work to troubleshoot test administration problems in Texas should be an asset as Tennessee works to resolve its own online challenges with TNReady, now in its fourth year.
“Assessment delivery must become first in class, and Dr. Schwinn has experience administering assessment programs in two states,” said David Mansouri, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
In her first Tennessee interview, Schwinn said that TNReady will be her first priority as spring testing approaches on April 15. “Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.
Schwinn follows two education commissioners under Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach For America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches. In particular, Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, superintendents, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and academic standards.
Setting and overseeing public education policy is among the biggest responsibilities of state government, which spends $5 billion of its $37.5 billion budget on schools and is required under federal law to administer annual tests to assess student progress.
During his campaign, Lee said that education would be one of his top priorities, promising a renewed focus on career, technical and agricultural education; more competitive pay for educators; a closer look at the state’s testing program; and more education options for parents to choose from.
Schwinn’s job will be to help Lee implement that vision, according to McQueen, who calls the state’s top education job “a unique opportunity.”
“You’re also making sure that public education is being supported well around resources and human capital and that you have high expectations for all students, not just certain groups. You have to elevate equity in every single thing you do,” McQueen told Chalkbeat last month before stepping down to become CEO of a national group focused on teacher quality.
Among Schwinn’s first tasks will be overseeing the transition to one or more companies that will take over TNReady beginning next school year. McQueen ordered a new request for testing proposals after a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s assessment under current vendor Questar and previous vendor Measurement Inc. Questar officials say they plan to pursue the state’s contract again.
In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.
In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee provide another layer of oversight.
Schwinn also will work with the governor’s office to allocate resources for education in accordance with the first state budget pounded out by Lee and the legislature. For instance, the governor-elect said frequently he wants a greater emphasis in career and technical education in schools — an idea that is popular with legislators. But legislators also want money to hire more law enforcement officers to police schools. And despite increased allocations for teacher pay, salaries for the state’s educators continue to trail the national average.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.