A lawsuit alleged that Commissioner Penny Schwinn favored certain textbook vendors without merit at the expense of more qualified vendors. Textbook and educational materials publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) filed the suit against the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) in November of 2019. Consequently, HMH noted that the sale of all other grade levels of reading materials offered by HMH were jeopardized, since they are designed to be implemented together from K-12 curriculum.
The Tennessee State Board of Education acted on the recommendation of an advisory panel appointed by the Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission to not adopt HMH’s third grade reading material. HMH claimed that the advisory panel’s process was disrupted after Schwinn appointed Dr. Lisa Coons as TDOE Assistant Commissioner for Standards and Materials. Thereafter, HMH claimed that the panel re-reviewed and failed HMH’s material, while TDOE adopted programs offered by competitors that also received failing grades.
“[T]he reason Into Reading Tennessee did not pass the re-review process for third grade is because the process was flawed,” claimed the suit.
HMH noted that TDOE suggested to those competitors whose materials received failing grades, yet were adopted, should recommend supplemental materials to districts.
“The fact that the Department recommended that school districts considering these programs should also seek supplemental materials for foundational skills suggests that these programs do indeed lack the educational content that Section IV was intended to measure,” alleged HMH. “If [those programs] had actually earned a passing grade[,] then such supplemental materials would not be necessary.”
The company also claimed that Coons was a staunch advocate of educational approaches offered by competitors, and unduly influenced the commission to reject HMH materials by offering incorrect information about districts’ abilities to obtain waivers.
The case, numbered 19-1429-IV, was dismissed with prejudice by the end of last January, about two months after the initial filing.
However, the lawsuit spurred lawmakers to review Schwinn’s influence on approved educational materials; she appeared before the Senate Education Committee several times last March. Five months later, the legislature decided to revoke Schwinn’s powers to vote on the commission and to grant waivers to school districts for unapproved books and materials. Public Chapter 770 was first filed in the House by Representative Kirk Haston (R-Lobelville) just one day before the final order was issued dismissing HMH’s case against TDOE.
Spokespersons with TDOE didn’t respond to request for comment by press time.
Schwinn recently saw success in her push to make phonics the primary mode of reading instruction, resisted initially by some legislators. However, Schwinn’s desires turned into a reality after legislators, pressured by pandemic-incited learning losses, passed the package of education reforms last week.
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Corinne Murdock is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and the Star News Network. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Penny Schwinn” by Tennessee Department of Education.