Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured to the right of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, defends herself against questions about possible "Schwinnanigans." / Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

The Tennessee legislature's Fiscal Review Committee upped a contract to $16 million with New York-based TNTP Inc. despite a potential conflict of interest for the state's education commissioner.

At the Education Department's request, the Fiscal Review Committee on Tuesday approved a two-year extension for another $8 million through 2024, adding to an $8 million contract the state signed in March.

TNTP is training teachers for early childhood literacy as part of a program designed to help students emerge from a learning lull in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initial contract signing came a full month before the Central Procurement Office gave final approval to a "mitigation" plan by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to avoid conflicts since her husband, Paul, works for TNTP.

The contract process also started before the legislature held a special session to approve funding for the teaching training program. Lawmakers had held up the program because they were worried that the Education Department was trying to steer a contract to a certain vendor.

The Department of Education did not provide documentation Tuesday showing Schwinn submitted a new "mitigation" plan for the contract extension.

But Education Department spokesman Brian Blackley said it is "substantively the same plan as before." He noted the department took a "by-the-book approach to ensure precautions were in place" when the state contracted initially with TNTP.

Department officials also said Tuesday the program is extremely successful, with some 10,000 teachers taking the courses last summer and 96% saying it helped them teach students how to read. The Education Department hopes to have student reading scores by late December to show whether children improved their reading skills.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat who serves on the Fiscal Review Committee, pointed out in Tuesday's meeting that the contract with TNTP has been "problematic" because of the potential for a conflict of interest. She asked that the department provide the committee with more information on the teacher training program.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, chairman of the Fiscal Review Committee, was concerned about the potential conflict at first but said Tuesday he believes Schwinn handled the matter correctly.

"I've talked to her a number of times about the perception and the problem," said Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. "The governor's aware of the optics. I'm aware of the optics, almost everybody up here is aware of the optics. She's overly aware."

Gardenhire added, "I think there's been so much light shined on this I don't want to say it doesn't concern me, but it doesn't raise any red flags for now."

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In late December 2020, the Department of Education submitted a conflict of interest disclosure for Schwinn associated with the request for proposals that led to TNTP getting the contract, according to documentation obtained by Tennessee Lookout. Only one other company turned in a bid for the work.

The department made another disclosure in late February connected to the request for proposals. The Central Procurement Office then sent guidance on how she should handle the matter. In March, the Central Procurement Office sent a clarification letter deeming the "mitigation strategies satisfactory."

Schwinn's electronic signature was affixed to the contract with TNTP in March.

Not until April, though, did the Education Department submit the disclosures again with a proposed "mitigation" plan in line with state policy. The Central Procurement Office found those satisfactory in April.

The department then "re-upped" the disclosure for the latest contract in late November, according to the letter documenting the matter.

In a January 2021 special session, the Legislature provided $160 million for four programs designed to bolster education as children emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly to help them catch up on reading skills after months out of school.

As part of her disclosure, Schwinn wrote a separate letter to the Central Procurement Office disclosing that her husband works for TNTP as a contractor for school systems. She said in the letter her husband discloses projects with her to make sure they don't concern work in Tennessee and noted he is not part of any solicitation with the state, nor does he work in the state.

The commissioner also told the central procurement office she would not be involved in evaluating solicitations for the contract and would delegate final approval to a deputy commissioner.