Bill Lee Selects Texas Reform Advocate Penny Schwinn For State’s Next Education Commissioner | Nashville Public Radio

Bill Lee Selects Texas Reform Advocate Penny Schwinn For State’s Next Education Commissioner

Jan 17, 2019

A top official in Texas has been tapped to lead Tennessee's Department of Education.

Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced today that Penny Schwinn, the chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, will be the state's next education commissioner.

She will replace Candice McQueen, who announced her resignation in November and plans to lead a national education nonprofit.

“Penny leads with students at the forefront, and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we made in the past few years,” Lee said in a news release Thursday. “She will help make Tennessee a leader in the nation on education.”

Schwinn has described herself an advocate for public schools and school choice.

"I believe in excellence," Schwinn told WPLN on Thursday. "I think there are lots of different definitions in terms of schools that that includes, but it is about high quality and excellence for every child."

She said she plans to meet with every school district in the state during the next three months to learn more about the issues affecting them. She's also been studying TNReady, the state's assessment system that has faced issues with log-in delays, bugs and software malfunctions.

"I'm knee-deep into the comptroller's report, as well as the current contract that's in place, so that on day one, I'm ready to support our department in ensuring that we have a very, very strong testing administration this spring," Schwinn said.

Different education groups across the state have reacted to Schwinn's appointment, including the Tennesse Education Association. Beth Brown, the president of TEA, said she looks forward to working with Schwinn. 

"I am confident we have common ground on the importance of test transparency, including educators' voices and working to ensure all students have access to quality public education," Brown said in a statement. 

Schwinn’s background shows she's been heavily involved in education reform efforts.

Schwinn started her career in education in 2004 as a teacher with Teach for America in Baltimore, Md. According to her LinkedIn profile, she then worked for two years in the private sector before returning to education full-time in 2009 by founding an independent charter school in Sacramento, Calif.

Penny Schwinn

Schwinn joined the Sacramento County Board of Education in 2012, then became an assistant superintendent with the Sacramento City Unified School District. According to WBUR, she collaborated on Sacramento Unified School District’s first school report card to measure performance and accountability.

Next, she worked for the Delaware Department of Education, then moved to Texas in 2016.

In an interview with education nonprofit Chiefs for Change, Schwinn said her core values as an educator are centered on “equity and integrity for all.”

In 2016, Schwinn also faced controversy after a Houston Chronicle article detailed a fast decline in the numbers of the enrolled for special education services.

More: How Texas keeps out tens of thousands of children out of special education

The article pointed out the Texas Education Agency had set an 8.5 percent enrollment target for the percentage of students benefiting from special education.

The department denied that was meant to be a cap put in place to deny services. Instead, they said the percentage was a measurement, the Houston Chronicle reported. But in 2018, the U.S. Department of Education found that the target of 8.5 percent “resulted in a declining identification rate of children with disabilities in Texas.”