Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray announced Wednesday that he has hired Amity Schuyler, the state official who is overseeing the rollout of Tennessee’s new school voucher program, to join his cabinet.
Schuyler is Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s chief deputy and her best-paid cabinet member with an annual salary of $180,000. She will become the Memphis district’s new chief of strategy and innovation, a role previously held by Brad Leon, who resigned in February to take a job with BlueCross BlueShield in Chattanooga.
“I consider Amity to be a steal,” Ray said in a statement.
After leaving the Tennessee Department of Education on May 7, Schuyler will work for a school system whose leaders have adamantly opposed the voucher program she has hustled to launch. In February, Shelby County government joined Metropolitan Nashville government and schools to sue the state in an effort to stop Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings accounts. The lawsuit argues that the new law arbitrarily targets their communities and saddles them with an unfair financial burden.
“As we reaffirm our opposition to vouchers and champion public education, we know that Amity’s proven work for Governor Bill Lee and the [department] has allowed her to develop key strategies and cultivate partnerships with stakeholders,” Ray said.
Her exit from the state comes at a critical time for the voucher program, which is scheduled to start with the upcoming school year unless a judge halts it.
Schuyler also has been a key player in launching Lee’s new state charter school commission, which is under development. Beginning next January, the panel will hear appeals from charter school applicants who have been denied by local boards of education.
“Amity has done a yeoman’s job to plan and launch the Education Savings Account program, and we are so glad that Tennessee will be keeping her talents in state,” Schwinn said in a statement.
Schuyler’s departure in May will come after applications close for families to receive education savings accounts, which provide taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and other private education expenses.
Moving forward, Schwinn said the program will be overseen at the cabinet level by Eve Carney, chief of districts and schools. Stephanie Ferrell, director of nonpublic school programs, will manage the day-to-day administration.
“While the TDOE is losing a very capable leader in Amity, I think the pieces are in place to ensure the ESA rollout is unaffected,” said Shaka Mitchell, state director of the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group that has worked closely with Lee’s administration on the program. “Amity did a good job of working on the rules and procedures and now the department, along with other stakeholders like AFC, are in full implementation mode.”
Schuyler is one of three cabinet hires Ray announced Wednesday.
Kenneth M. Walker II moved from interim to permanent general counsel and chief legal officer. Jerica Phillips becomes chief of communications after serving in a deputy role. She succeeds Natalia Powers, who recently resigned.
Ray said all three people bring “savvy leadership skills” to his team.
Schwinn put Schuyler in charge of the voucher rollout last July after Lee ordered the department to work with the state Board of Education toward a fall 2020 launch, one year earlier than the 2019 voucher law deadline.
At the time, Schwinn called Schuyler a leader who “believes in education savings accounts” and noted her work with a large school system in Florida, one of the first states to start that program.
Schuyler was chief of staff for the superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools when Schwinn recruited her from Florida in early 2019. She worked for three years as director of strategic marketing and communications for Lee County Schools, based in Fort Myers, Florida. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Florida Gulf Coast University.
Under Ray, Schuyler will soon work on the district’s strategic goals that include elevating academic equity and social-emotional learning. The superintendent also wants to increase access to digital tools and internet service for Memphis students, most of whom are from low-income families.
“Whether you’re a teacher introducing a new math concept to students or a leader committed to bridging the digital divide with technology, effective implementation requires strategy,” Ray said.
Walker joined the district in 2016 and has served in his interim legal role since last November. A Memphis native who graduated from Whitehaven High School and law school at the University of Memphis, he practiced with the firm Lewis, Thomason, King, Krieg & Waldrop.
Phillips became deputy communications chief a year ago and was a news anchor and reporter for Memphis television station WMC. A Memphis native and graduate of legacy Shelby County Schools, she also worked on a juvenile justice grant for Shelby County government.