NASHVILLE — Following stints as a teacher — as well as in senior education leadership roles in California and Delaware — Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn finds herself in the midst of a new learning experience, navigating the Volunteer State's sometimes-treacherous intersection of politics, policy and management.
During her 20-month tenure here, the 37-year-old commissioner has managed to rile department staffers, certain educators and several school district superintendents. Worse for her, a number of conservative GOP majority state lawmakers and groups have begun to criticize her.
The latest example is an uproar among conservatives over a child welfare wellness-check program. Schwinn proposed it as an option, one of several "tool-kits" to ensure students are OK during the coronavirus pandemic. Child abuse complaints have fallen some 27% percent during the pandemic, and some worry that's because abuse is not being spotted by educators during virtual, as opposed to in-person, learning.
Her plan was sent back to the drawing board with critics in and out of the General Assembly charging the wellness checks would require a massive, costly new bureaucracy and also be an undue intrusion on parents.
In an Aug. 14 letter to lawmakers, Schwinn said that "although well-intentioned, we have missed the mark on communication and providing clarity around our role in supporting at-risk students during an unprecedented time. Governor Lee has asked our department to remove this guidance and go back to the drawing board so we get this right."
Unmollified, some critics openly called on Republican Gov. Bill Lee to fire Schwinn, his appointee.
"Simply stated, she does not represent our values and has no business educating our children," stated Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, the former state executive director of the libertarian advocacy lobby group Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, in a Facebook post. "I formally call on Gov. Bill Lee to remove Commissioner Penny Schwinn."
Efforts to speak with Schwinn last week were unsuccessful. In a statement, the department said that "as a state, we are in unprecedented times and navigating all-new challenges presented by the pandemic that have real implications for the next generation and future leaders of Tennessee. Students, educators, schools, and districts need more support now than ever and the department is focused on delivering outcomes that meet the needs of students and school communities."
Some House GOP lawmakers and conservative groups hoped they could pressure Lee to act, or at least spur a no-confidence vote Tuesday on the commissioner in the House Education Committee's summer study meeting. Those hopes fizzled after Lee publicly voiced confidence earlier this month in his education commissioner.
Asked twice by reporters about the lack of confidence some legislative members of his own party have expressed about Schwinn, Lee said this month that "I am very pleased with the work that our commissioner has done so far."
The governor called opening schools in the midst of a pandemic "one of the greatest challenges that any state has faced. Our state's been one of the first to do it and we've done it effectively I believe. We've worked really hard to protect the lives of kids, and the lives of teachers and the health of those."
Prior to that, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, a House Education Committee member, complained publicly the wellness-check issue represented "a pattern here of not letting the committee know." Cepicky also told The Tennessean during the same interview that "we have to express to her that we are the funding body. We write all the checks for all the departments. And they have to make sure they have that respect for us, that they're going to ask us."
In a Times Free Press interview on Friday, Cepicky declined to comment further until a Tuesday committee meeting. He noted, "I'm going to be direct to the commissioner" and said, "I just hope that we can figure out are we on the right path forward in education in Tennessee or not."
In a recent opinion piece, J.C. Bowman, head of the conservative Professional Educators of Tennessee — which represents some state public as well as private school educators — described Schwinn as "embattled." But Bowman noted that while Schwinn "will face some tough questions, and tension will be high, the commissioner will likely not face a 'no confidence' vote" in the panel because the entire General Assembly won't be back in session until January.
Bowman said in a Times Free Press interview that his criticisms of Schwinn largely stem from what he said was a tardy rollout of state guidance to more than 100 local school districts on reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance came in late July. And Bowman said not all schools have received promised personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
Another Bowman criticism goes back to the furor over private school vouchers in 2019 when Lee and top GOP allies narrowly won approval of a House vote. After the state decided to start the program for thousands of low-income families earlier than expected, officials approved a no-bid voucher contract with ClassWallet to ensure taxpayer dollars would be spent appropriately by families.
Officials argued ClassWallet was the only company qualified to carry out the task. The entire program has been blocked amid pending litigation on an unrelated issue.
Schwinn also ran into trouble on another contract in 2020, this one dealing with K-12 textbooks after a major book publisher was knocked off the vendor list.
"I think the legislature is going to have to ask for a better accounting on any contract," Bowman said.
Officials with the Tennessee Education Association, which represents most public school teachers, had no comment Friday on Schwinn.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said "the child wellness piece did create, I guess, a concern. It may not be considered the normal way of doing things."
Some of that may be attributable to a lack of communication with parents, superintendents and others, Hakeem said. The commissioner, he added, "has an opportunity to get past the crisis point, but she's going to have to be more communicative with people who are closest to the children and not be perceived as from on high."
Some superintendents have been critical of Schwinn. Efforts to reach Hamilton County Superintendent Bryan Johnson last week were unsuccessful.
One of the things some conservatives have voiced reservations about is Schwinn's embracing the "whole child" approach, which looks to areas such as mental health of students within a family context. Hamilton County School Board member Tiffanie Robinson called it a "shame that it becomes a politicized topic."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.