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TN Supt. Penny Schwinn Bypasses Legislature with No-Bid Voucher Contract

February 13, 2020

Teach for America (TFA) alum Penny Schwinn is Tennessee’s education commissioner, a post that she has held for a year as of this writing.

Within ten months of Schwinn’s arrival as Tennessee ed commissioner, the Tennessee Department of Education experienced 250 resignations, including “people with decades of institutional knowledge,” which the November 15, 2019, Tennessee Chalkbeat characterized as “not typical.”

It might not be typical for an education commissioner who does not hail from TFA, but Schwinn’s purgative effect on Tennessee’s ed department is a familiar story to those of us in Louisiana, where another TFA alum, John White, had the same effect on the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). (For an inside peek of LDOE chaos under White, see this 2014 post by former LDOE employee, Jason France.)

I first wrote about Schwinn in her previous role as Texas Education Agency (TEA) deputy commissioner of academics in connection to the wrongful termination of Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, who blew the whistle on TEA’s no-bid contract with special education data company, SPEDx. One of Kash’s concerns was an alleged personal relationship between Schwinn and a SPEDx leader.

On February 12, 2020, Schwinn was again in the news related to a no-bid contract controversy, this time in connection with Tennessee’s school voucher program and the ed-fund-tracking company, ClassWallet, as Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers who oversee the spending of Tennessee taxpayer money blasted the Department of Education Wednesday for its handling of a no-bid contract with ClassWallet, hired for $1.25 million a year to manage the state’s upcoming voucher program.

Commissioner Penny Schwinn and members of her team were grilled for almost two hours over the decision to bypass a competitive bid process to hire the Florida-based company — and for twice the amount budgeted for work this year on Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program. …

“Fiscal Review didn’t find out about this contract grant until Nov. 13 when it was published in Chalkbeat. Do you think that that’s acceptable?” asked Rep. Matthew Hill, the Jonesborough Republican who chairs the panel. …

“To the general public, it looks like you found a vendor, and then created a contract,” said Faison, a Republican from Cosby.

There is a lot more detail to the Chalkbeat article, which is certainly worth a complete read. It seems that Schwinn’s rogue maneuvers have the support of Tennessee governor Bill Lee, and Schwinn justified her no-bid decision by saying it was necessary to begin the voucher program in 2020, a year earlier that the legislature planned, as per the governor’s wishes.

Another major irritation for Tennessee legislators is the ballooned pricetag due to Schwinn’s no-bid: The legislature budgeted $750K for costs associated with the voucher program, but Schwinn blew it up, committing her ClassWallet no-bid to $2.5M for two years.

But there’s more: Schwinn’s chief financial officer said that it decided– without legislative approval– to use teacher-pay funds from an expired program to fund the increased voucher program cost due to the no-bid it awarded. In response, Tennessee House Fiscal Review Panel chair, Matthew Hill, replied, “…We robbed teacher pay. … I can’t stress how bad this looks for us.”

He then ordered Schwinn’s ed department to return on February 19, 2020, to show the Panel that the ed department exercised “due diligence” in contracting with ClassWallet.

Schwinn could be the undoing of Tennessee’s voucher program. Wouldn’t that be something.


Penny Schwinn


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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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From → John White, TFA, Vouchers

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