Penny Schwinn starts her new job Monday as Tennessee’s education commissioner and is expected to be sworn in quickly as Gov. Bill Lee’s top policy official on K-12 schools.
The final cabinet member named before Lee took office on Jan. 19, Schwinn has spent the past two weeks winding down her job as academic chief for Texas schools and packing up to move to Nashville.
A native of Sacramento, California, Schwinn started her education career with Teach For America in Baltimore and has since served as a school board member, charter school founder and principal, and assistant district superintendent in her hometown. Most recently, she’s worked in top state education department roles in Delaware and Texas, where she gained expertise in student assessments. She holds a master’s degree in teaching and a Ph.D. in education policy.
Here are six other things to know about Schwinn:
She comes from a family of teachers. Her mother taught for almost four decades, working with students from mostly low-income families in Sacramento. Public education was always part of the conversation at home. She also lists a sister, brother-in-law, aunts, uncles, and cousins among those in the profession.
Her husband is an educator, too. Paul Schwinn also began his career with Teach For America and was a charter school principal in Sacramento. While his wife worked for the state of Delaware, he did principal development work in Philadelphia through for TNTP, an education reform-oriented organization previously called The New Teacher Project. Most recently, he was vice president for IDEA Public Schools, a Texas-based charter network. “He’s still thinking about what he’s going to do in Tennessee,” Schwinn told Chalkbeat.
They plan to enroll their children in Nashville public schools. The Schwinns have two daughters ages 6 and 3, the older of whom is in kindergarten. “Having a school-age child completely changes your perspective,” she says of her education policy work. “I’ve held a number of leadership positions in education; but when you have a child in school, you understand how personal it is. There’s a lot of emotion that goes into your child’s education.”
Education equity is listed as a core value. On her LinkedIn page, she describes herself as a “parent, educator and leader” who “lives and works with the unwavering joy and belief in the potential of our children, and the probability of excellence in each and every one of them.”
At 36, she is Tennessee’s youngest education chief in recent memory — perhaps ever. The state’s list of leadership over public schools and instruction dates to 1835, so it’s uncertain whether a younger person has been at the helm. Her two most recent predecessors, Candice McQueen and Kevin Huffman, were 40 when they were hired by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Her salary will go up, but not by much. As Tennessee’s education commissioner, she’ll make $200,000 annually, the same as McQueen. Schwinn made about $195,000 in her Texas job.