On Thursday Governor-Elect Bill Lee named 36-year-old Penny Schwinn, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, who began her career in education working as a teacher for Teach for America, as Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education.
Kevin Huffman, who served as Commissioner of Education during the Haslam administration from 2011 to 2014, also began his career at Teach for America, a controversial non-profit organization that pays new college graduates to teach in urban schools as part of its mission to address “educational inequity” and “help children overcome obstacles like systemic racism and poverty.” Huffman’s tenure as Education Commissioner was widely considered to be unsuccessful.
“Penny leads with students at the forefront and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years,” Lee said in the announcement of her appointment.
“As a former teacher and seasoned administrator, she will help make Tennessee a leader in the nation on education,” Lee added.
The announcement continued:
Schwinn currently serves as the chief deputy commissioner of education at the Texas Education Agency. In this role, she pursued a series of reforms including the transformation of a failing state assessment program. She also implemented the expansion of statewide externships and pathway development for improving students’ career readiness upon graduation.
Additionally, Schwinn oversaw the development of open-source instructional materials to empower teachers with high-quality resources for teaching. Prior to serving in the Texas Education Agency, Schwinn was the chief accountability and performance officer for the Delaware Department of Education where she led efforts to conduct a testing audit, which led to nearly a 20 percent decrease in student testing time.
A former teacher, Schwinn taught with Teach for America (TFA) from 2004-2007 with work in Baltimore City Public Schools and Los Angeles. She is also the founder of Capitol Collegiate Academy, a charter school that serves low-income students in South Sacramento.
Governor-Elect Lee’s announcement of his appointment of Schwinn made no mention of making school choice. It was not mentioned either as a priority of his administration, or as an area in which Schwinn has any interest, experience, or focus.
On July 5, 2018–one month before the Republican gubernatorial primary–Lee included school choice as one of his Ten for Tenn priorities outlined in his “contract with Tennesseans.” Shortly after he won the primary in August 2018, the list of Ten for Ten promises was removed from his campaign website. The current list of nine priorities for his new administration does not include school choice.
More on Schwinn’s Background
Schwinn served about one year of a four year term on the Sacramento school board from 2013-14. In that highly contested election, she touted her endorsements from a host of local Democrats including Democrat Mayor Kevin Johnson — who is married to Michele Rhee (founder of StudentsFirst where Lee Administration officials Blake Harris and Brent Esley previously worked) and who is the ex-wife of former controversial Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — and Democrats for Education Reform.
Schwinn has also been at the center of recent controversy in Texas over her role in the imposition of testing costs on local school systems, which have been criticized as an unfunded mandate by some local school boards.
Schwinn had made a flurry of career moves in just the past 4 years. She quickly moved from her elected School Board position in Sacramento, California after only one year to take a job with that same school system; moved on one year later in 2014 to a position in Delaware as testing and assessment director and less than another year later applied for a became one of 9 persons named as a finalist for a Superintendent’s job in Osceola, Fla.
Tennessee Star Political Editor Steve Gill noted that Schwinn is clearly ambitious, but “has a consistent track record of moving from job to job before any actual accountability and results can be seen.”
“As soon as she takes her position with the Lee Administration and updates her resume to include Commissioner, I expect she will be circulating it in search of the next position,” Gill added.
“It doesn’t appear that that the Lee team did much vetting, though I would hope they thoroughly explored the serious questions that have been raised about her time in Texas before offering her the job and perhaps even got some assurance that she will at least serve through the end of the year before moving on again.”
The contract issues in Texas are particularly troubling in view of the Tennessee contract issues with testing company Questar, Gill pointed out.
Hopefully, she will provide more scrutiny to Questar’s attempted return to overseeing Tennessee’s failed testing process than she did in Texas.
One year ago, Schwinn was one of three finalists for the position of Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts.
Boston’s WBUR provided this report of her career at the time:
Schwinn was only five years out of college when she founded a charter school, Capitol Collegiate Academy, to serve mostly low-income students in South Sacramento. In 2015 and 2016, she studied at the Broad Academy, a top incubator for ambitious school administrators that has also been criticized as spreading a corporate approach to education management. And Schwinn is the only candidate with a doctoral degree, a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University, awarded in 2016. . .
After years in Sacramento, Schwinn first began putting her ideas about narrowing the achievement gap to work at the state level in Delaware in 2014.
Under the state’s then-education secretary, Mark Murphy, her responsibilities centered on creating a regime of measurement and accountability in the state. She oversaw Delaware’s rollout of the Smarter Balanced exam — the assessment aligned with the Common Core — in 2015.
She also implemented the state’s “Priority Schools” program, which used standardized-test scores to target a few urban schools for a battery of “turnaround” reforms — like off at least half of their teachers, while raising salaries and promoting flexibility for new school leadership. That program resulted in a drawn-out and acrimonious standoff between state and some district officials.
For Kevin Ohlandt, a Delaware parent and education blogger, Schwinn’s single-minded focus on that kind of accountability was damaging.
“I’m not a fan of standardized testing. And I believe that they’re used more to test, punish, label and shame schools” than to help them, Ohlandt said. “And Penny was all about that.”
Ohlandt points out that Schwinn has served in six major education roles in three states in the past 10 years: principal, superintendent, school-board member and deputy commissioner.
“The fact that she’s moving around the country is very much a concern, because it shows that she kind of comes into a place, causes problems and then leaves,” he said.
Schwinn’s two years in Texas have not been without controversy, as the Houston Chronicle reported in September:
The Texas Education Agency violated state rules when it awarded a multi-million-dollar no-bid contract to a group tasked with collecting data about special education students and spent millions on services that never were provided, according to the State Auditor’s Office.
Auditors said the agency ultimately paid Atlanta-based SPEDx $2.5 million even though it only received $150,000 worth of services. TEA officials also failed to check SPEDx’s security controls, potentially jeopardizing the data of thousands of special education students statewide, and failed to mention a professional relationship between a top TEA official and a SPEDx subcontractor, the auditors found.
“Problems with the TEA’s procurement practices with SPEDx began in January 2017, shortly after the agency identified a need to analyze and collect special education data for thousands of students across the state, auditors said,” the Chronicle continued, adding:
Personal emails from that month showed the TEA’s Chief Deputy Academic Commissioner Penny Schwinn was introduced to SPEDx CEO Richard Nyankori by a professional development coach, with whom the deputy commissioner had a previous professional relationship. The three discussed special education projects that at least six of the agency’s 20 education service centers were interested in pursuing before switching their conversations to work emails.
By April, the report said, Schwinn had drafted and other TEA officials approved a justification letter for why the multi-million-dollar contract should go through a no-bid process, side-stepping required approval from the Texas Comptroller’s office. The contract went into effect May 24, and the professional development coach who introduced Schwinn and Nyankori ultimately was hired as a subcontractor by SPEDx.
During the contracting process, the TEA failed to analyze its needs for the contract would be and did not develop an estimate of how much those services would cost. Officials did not advertise the potential contract to other groups that could have completed the work, did not require SPEDx to answer questions related to conflicts of interest and did not seek an assessment of potential fraud, abuse or waste risks, as required by the Texas Government Code. . .
Morath canceled the contract a month later, but TEA ultimately paid SPEDx a total of $2.5 million after receiving only $150,000 worth of services due to how the contract and amendment were worded, the auditors said.
The Texas Tribune covered the same story.
No Response from the Lee Camp
The Tennessee Star contacted Laine Arnold, press secretary for the Lee transition team, and asked if Governor-Elect Lee was aware of the Texas auditor’s report prior to deciding to name Schwinn as Education Commissioner.
Arnold did not return The Star’s emailed request for comment before our stated deadline Thursday.
In the email, we also asked the Lee camp the following, albeit unsuccessfully:
• A comment on past criticism that Schwinn moves around too much and causes problems.
• Exactly how carefully did the Lee team vet Schwinn and by what means?
• Does Lee think the political conservatives who helped him win the Republican gubernatorial primaries (against formidable odds) and then win the general election, would approve of Schwinn?
• Last July, Lee included school choice as one of his 10 for Tenn. promises in his contract with Tennesseans. The press release put out about Schwinn, however, makes no mention of Lee’s 10 for 10 promise to make school choice a priority. Why is that?
– – –
Chris Butler got his master’s degree in communications from the University of Louisiana at Monroe and his bachelor’s degree in political science from Louisiana Tech University.
Chris worked as a newspaper reporter for seven years and later was an investigative reporter for Tennessee Watchdog from 2010 to 2017. From May 2018 to August 3, 2018 Chris was the Tennessee communications director for the TennValues PAC, which endorsed Bill Lee for governor. Chris has served as the investigative reporter for The Tennessee Star since August 6, 2018.