Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn Gave $8 Million Contract to Company That Employs Her Husband


Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s husband works for the company that benefited from an $8.06 million reading initiative contract.

Apparently, Commissioner Schwinn keeps it all in the family. As The Tennessee Star reported last fall, sources claimed that Schwinn imported former colleagues from Texas when she assumed her role within TDOE. They also claimed that they were subjected to hiring freezes and pressure to slash budgets, though Schwinn had no problem with maintaining the six-figure salaries for her imports.

These sources offered further context for a lawsuit that Schwinn faces currently.

Following a flurry of hirings and resignations that totaled to 9 months of a rapid turnover rate within TDOE, Schwinn was sued by a previous employee, Katie Poulous, for wrongful termination. Poulous alleged that Schwinn discriminated against her for a disability and retaliated against her following a medical emergency.

That’s not the only lawsuit Schwinn has faced during her brief tenure with the TDOE.

As The Star reported, a textbook company alleged in a 2019 lawsuit that Schwinn issued her own appointment to head the Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission midway through their process of selecting approved textbooks, thereby disrupting and swaying selections to Schwinn’s liking.

Although the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, it spurred legislators to bring Schwinn before the Senate Education Committee five times last March. The General Assembly also stripped Schwinn of her voting powers on that commission.

In the wake of these lawsuits and anonymous allegations, Republican legislators petitioned for a vote of no confidence against Schwinn.

However, lawmakers ultimately determined that keeping Schwinn would be better for the state amidst pandemic recovery efforts in education.

State Representative Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) committed to following through with the effort for a vote of no confidence, submitting a formal resolution to do so earlier this year.

“You do have an argument that if kids are falling behind, and you have reduced staff at the [TDOE], whose job is it to make sure that they don’t fall behind?” stated Griffey. “You’re not helping the problem. You’re probably exacerbating the problem.”

However, the resolution was withdrawn in February – just days after Governor Bill Lee gave his State of the State Address. Lee has been one of Schwinn’s biggest supporters since he first appointed her. He even backed her controversial Child Well-Being Check Toolkit last year during the pandemic, condemned roundly as a big brother-style government overreach.

Griffey told The Star in an interview that he wasn’t at all surprised by this news about the contract details. He explained that, even if everything was clean and square with this contract, the optics of the situation aren’t good.

“From a political perspective, it just looks awful,” stated Griffey. “It causes Tennesseans to question how state tax dollars are spent. We ought to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

State Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) told The Star in an emailed statement that he is investigating the TDOE contract.

“This contract appears to be conflict of interest,” stated Bell. “I am looking into this matter further to determine Paul Schwinn’s role with the company, how the contract was procured and whether it uses federal or state money.”

Other contracts penned by Schwinn’s hand have raised eyebrows. The controversy surrounding the legislature’s passage of the education savings account (ESA) – or, school voucher program – didn’t deter her from awarding a no-bid contract. According to Griffey, Schwinn bypassed the legislature and a competitive bid process in order to award a $2.5 million contract to a company for financial management of the ESA program.

The Star is awaiting fulfillment of an open records request with TDOE concerning the contract.

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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].






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10 Thoughts to “Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn Gave $8 Million Contract to Company That Employs Her Husband”

  1. Mary

    Does this state not have a law that prevents such things? Maybe it was not needed in the past but now we have men and women in government positions, wives and husbands should not be giving any business, any contracts, any inside information to their spouse, their children, their step-children, brothers, sisters, etc. You are there to serve the people of the State of Tennessee, not to line the pocketbooks of your family.

  2. Chiron Venizelos

    The FIRST matter to consider is that US public schools rank 19th overall in the world – this is in spite of the fact that the U.S. spends more money per student than any other country. Among the several states, Tennessee public schools rank 41st in the nation. To cut to the chase, Tennessee public schools STINK! Their performance is totally inexcusable.
    Is it not apparent that TN taxpayers have been subsidizing failure for far too long?
    Is it not also apparent that those people in TDOE have made a career out of giving TN taxpayers LOUSY results?
    While we cannot know all the particulars in this case – we have heard NOTHING from Ms. Schwinn – it is fair to assume all we’ve heard from those “anonymous” whistleblowers is hearsay – unfounded claims against someone who came in and stirred the pot.
    There are two things I would like to examine BEFORE I make a judgement in this matter:
    1. Has Ms. Schwinn’s efforts improved our lousy public schools? (It will take at least 2 years to learn the facts of the matter.)
    2. I want to hear Ms. Schwinn’s side of the story. I want to understand why she is doing what she is doing and what is her vision for TN public schools.
    Once we can learn those things, we will be able to make a fair assessment of her service – not until.
    PS In the military, when a new General arrives on the scene, it is essential that they bring their command team with them – this way, the General can have a fair assessment of everything under their command and make better decisions. That Ms. Schwinn brought her trusted staff members with her shows good judgement in my opinion.

  3. gordon

    crooked as heck

  4. Mike

    Gov Lee should stand up and let the state know why this person is still in office.

  5. 83ragtop50

    I just love this excuse by the legislators for failing to take decisive action against Schwinn:

    “However, lawmakers ultimately determined that keeping Schwinn would be better for the state amidst pandemic recovery efforts in education.”

    So letting her continue to harm the state of public education was the better choice? I strongly disagree. A cancer left untreated simply spreads and does more harm.

    Mr. Lee’s selection of her at the start of his term showed us all just how little he knows about education. Hiring leftwing liberals and throwing money again and again at schools and recalcitrant teachers has proven him to be a educational disaster. The guy needs to follow Schwinn out the door.

  6. Kalee

    Sometimes, the most godly, righteous words you can say are “YOU’RE FIRED!”.
    PLEASE Governor Lee! You can do it!

  7. jamesb

    everybody has a boss. where is hers. outright corruption.

  8. Betty Lynn Duley

    This woman’s contemptuous disregard for legislative process and approval should be grounds for dismissal. How much has her behavior cost the state in responding to complaints and legal action? Governor Lee needs to put Tennessee’s interest first. She appears to be incompatible with our values.

  9. Wolf Woman

    One wonders why an “upright” Christian Governor would stand by a suspiciously corrupt bureaucrat.

  10. rick

    Is Lee stupid or what, this Schwinn lady is no good, she has destroyed the TDOE. What a mess, fire her, she is doing a terrible job and it appears that she has no moral compass of right and wrong, or cares. A Tennessee move in that needs to get the hell out of the state.She is no good! She is a crook fire her!!