This story was updated Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, at 8:10 p.m. with Penny Schwinn's photo and more information.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's newly elected Gov. Bill Lee unveiled one of his most high-profile cabinet positions Thursday, announcing the appointment of an education commissioner touted for her education reform work.
The Republican governor has chosen Penny Schwinn, 36, to lead Tennessee's Department of Education. She previously served as the Texas Education Agency chief deputy commissioner of academics since 2016.
"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 a statement. "As a former teacher and seasoned administrator, she will help make Tennessee a leader in the nation on education."
Lee has advocated for school choice, but hasn't released detailed policy priorities yet — particularly if and how the first-time elected politician will push possible school vouchers.
"I think Tennessee has been a bellwether for the country for the past eight years and really defined for the country what is possible for student achievement growth and progress," Schwinn said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. "I think the most important thing I can do, especially in the first three months and ongoing, is listen and learn."
Lee's team touted Schwinn's role in transforming the assessment program in Texas, expanding externships and focusing on career readiness. She took the job while still a finalist to be Ohio's superintendent.
It was in Texas, however, that an audit found that the agency failed to identify a conflict of interest between Schwinn and a subcontractor involved in a long-term special education plan for the state. Schwinn was the primary decision maker in that contract, but she did not disclose that she received professional development training from an employee who then became the subcontractor on the project, according to the audit.
Schwinn countered at the time she was not involved in the subcontracting decision.
"It was determined on three different occasions that there actually wasn't any conflict. We just didn't have the processes in place to sign the right forms at the right time," Schwinn said. "But what I learned is that it's incredibly important to think about program and operation."
Schwinn's move to Tennessee is the latest of a several big career jumps in her education career. She began with Teach for America — working in both Baltimore and Los Angeles — before founding a charter school for low-income students in Sacramento, California in 2009.
In 2012, she briefly served on Sacramento's county school board but then resigned to take a job with the city school district. A year after that, in 2014, she became the chief accountability and performance officer for the Delaware Department of Education
Schwinn also was recently a finalist for the Massachusetts education commissioner job and was once a finalist for a superintendent's job in Osceola, Florida.
"As a newcomer to our state, I hope she will take time to see firsthand the meaningful work happening in classrooms all across Tennessee, and also gain an understanding of the support and resources needed to ensure student success," said Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association, the state's teacher union.
Lee's inauguration is Saturday.