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Penny Schwinn Resigns as TN Ed Commissioner

May 12, 2023

On May 01, 2023, the 74 first reported that controversial Tennessee ed commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has announced her resignation effective June 01, 2023.

Penny Schwinn

According to the 74, Schwinn “declined to say what she will be doing next.” So, like other ed-reformers who began with corporate-reform, teacher-temp Teach for America (TFA) and were jettisoned to high-level ed-leadership positions, including Michelle Rhee (DC) and John White (LA)— and like Hanna Skandera (NM), state chief who lacked even TFA-like, token classroom experience and was finally confirmed after four years– Schwinn is not leaving because she is headed to another position so much as she is leaving from a top position following a tenure riddled with controversy.

The storm that is Schwinn.

Prior to becoming TN ed commissioner in 2019, Schwinn was chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In May 2021, I wrote about the whistleblower situation that then-TEA director of special education, Laurie Kash, found herself in after learning in November 2017 of TEA’s no-bid contract with a brand-new vendor, SPEDx, which happened to be run by Ricahrd Nyankori, a TFA alum placed in charge of special education for four years (2006-2011) by former TFA chancellor, Michelle Rhee. In 2018, I examined Nyankori’s credentials, from which one could not ascertain whether Nyankori had even a single year of certified special education classroom experience.

Part of Kash’s concern was the connection between Schwinn, who happened to be Kash’s supervisor’s supervisor– and Nyankori.

To further complicate issues (and illustrate the way that TFA alumni shadily cater to their own), the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), under TFA-alum state superintendent John White, also had a sketchy contract with SPEDx, mysteriously for “no cost.” (LA special ed policy director, Jamie Wong, cryptically wrote that “we [LDOE?] did not spend any money on this,” meaning the SPEDx contract.) When the news broke in December 2017 that TEA had decided to cancel its contract with SPEDx, a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman, Andrea Ball, wanted to speak with LDOE officials about its SPEDx connection. In March 2018, I wrote about a flurry of LDOE emails related to the matter.

In sum, a high-level TX TFAer (Schwinn) is connected to (and apparently trying to conceal, as Kash was fired the day after filing her whistleblower complaint) a no-bid contract to a newly-formed vendor operated by a TFA alum (Nyankori), who once held a high-level special education position under another TFA alum (Rhee) and whose new special education company also has a contract with Louisiana, the state ed department of which is also run by a former TFAer (White).

Despite the Schwinn’s connection to the no-bid SPEDx fiasco in Texas, in 2019, she was still hired as Tennessee commissioner of education. Reflecting upon Schwinn’s departure, the May 01, 2023, Tennessee Lookout pointedly reminds readers:

[Governor Bill] Lee selected Schwinn to run the Department of Education even though a Texas audit found she failed to follow rules for a no-bid $4.4 million contract on special education.

In April 2022, the Tennessee Holler noted that Schwinn omitted from her most-recent financial disclosure mention of her husband’s employer, TNTP (started by Michelle Rhee, incidentally)– a notable omission since on March 01, 2021, Schwinn signed a two-year, $8M contract with TNTP, with the Tennessee Lookout noting, “The contract took effect March 12, and is to run through fiscal 2022 at a rate of $4.032 million for each year, even though only four months remain in this fiscal year.” In December 2021, the contract was renewed for an additional $8M through 2024 “despite a potential conflict of interest for the state’s education commissioner,” the Tennessee Lookout again reports.

The March 2021 Tennessee Lookout adds that Schwinn already has a history of questionable fiscal dealings (including that no-bid SPEDx contract):

This isn’t the first time the Schwinns have run into a possible conflict of interest, either. According to a report by Exceptional Delaware, Penny Schwinn took a post as chief of accountability and performance officer with Delaware Department of Education around 2014. Shortly after that, the Delaware Leadership Project hired her husband as director of leadership development. The group was funded by the Delaware Department of Education, Rodel Foundation of Delaware and The Vision Network, according to the report.

Schwinn was selected by Gov. Bill Lee to run the Education Department in early 2019 even though a Texas audit found she failed to follow rules for a no-bid $4.4 million contract on special education.

Since then, she caught the ire of Democratic and Republican lawmakers for approving a $2.5 million no-bid contract with Florida-based ClassWallet, using Career Ladder funds, to run the Education Savings Account program. That voucher program, Lee’s first major education initiative, was found unconstitutional and remains tied up in court.

In January 2021, Schwinn faced the prospect of a no-confidence vote from the Tennessee legislature. TN House rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) introduced the bill. The January 15, 2021, summarizes Griffey’s concerns, which include the notable turnover at the state department of education, which the Center Square has at 33 percent in September 2020.

One in three employees leaving–with two out of three of them simply resigning, not retiring– is stunning.


State House Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) cited multiple reasons for his interest in the vote including a $2.5 million no-bid contract approved by Schwinn with Florida-based school voucher program ClassWallet. Griffy also called into question the hiring of certain staff members and salaries within the Department of Education and the department’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Tennessee schools.

“Under her leadership, or rather lack thereof, there has been what I would call an excessive turnover rate, which some have estimated to be 19 percent and others have estimated to be 33 percent,” Griffey said. “The Tennessee Department of Education has certainly far exceeded the norms of attrition of employees with 250 resignations within the first year of her appointment, which included individuals with decades of institutional knowledge. This is not normal. 

“It left local school leaders uncertain of who to call with questions, and more importantly, and sadly, it harmed Tennessee students.”

“She pressured schools into reopening while keeping the doors to the Tennessee Department of Education closed and allowing employees to work from home. … It is my understanding that she failed to timely provide (personal protective equipment) and cleaning supplies to schools.”

Ultimately, the no-confidence vote did not happen; on February 10, 2021, the TN House withdrew the bill.

That was before the whole $16M TNTP contract debacle.

So, what is Tennessee losing with the exit of Schwinn?

Possibly chaos. Possibly.

From the May 2023 Tennessee Lookout:

Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville called Schwinn’s departure a positive move for the state.

“Good riddance. No one has done more to harm our public schools and strategically undermine teachers than Penny Schwinn, in lockstep coordination with Bill Lee,” Clemmons said.

Clemmons, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said it could take years to “undo the damage” that Lee and Schwinn have “intentionally” done to public schools.

According to the May 01, 2023, Tennessean, even though Schwinn “did not say where she is going next,” she “plans to stay in Tennessee.”

Who is taking Schwinn’s place?

Interestingly, as the Tennessean reports, Schwinn will be replaced by Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, who was Schwinn’s predecessor as chief deputy commissioner at TEA (in Texas) and who left in 2016 to work for ExcelinEd, an education-reform, school-choice organization founded by former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. In fact, Reynolds has connections to both Jen Bush and his brother, former president, George W.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds

According to her LinkedIn bio, Reynolds holds a bachelors in political science from Southwestern University in Texas (1983-87) and no other degrees. She has participated in the2018-2020 Pahara Institute education fellowship, an education-reform, non-degree program to further cultivate “leaders who are reimagining America’s public schools.” Reynolds has no classroom teaching experience; however, in true ed-reform fashion, her bio sparkles from high-level positions of influence over the K12 classroom, including six years as TEA deputy commissioner of policy and programs (2007-2013) and another four years as TEA chief deputy commissioner. Prior to her rise in TEA, her employment included four years as an administrative assistant and lobbyist; multiple stints as a legislative director and/or legislative aide, and two years as a campaign strategist.

Her first connection to public education was at the federal level (not the classroom; no classroom experience at all, mind you) for then-President George W. Bush: Special assistant, Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, US Department of Education, 2002-2004:

Served as congressional liaison to primary education and workforce committees in U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate, developing statutory recommendations, ensuring Bush administration policy viewpoints were championed, and provided direct and sustained support on reauthorizations of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Head Start Act.

Reynolds’ first title connecting her to K12 education was in 2004-05: Assistant director, Institute for Public School Initiatives, The University of Texas System.

In September 2016, Reynolds landed a VP position with another Bush, in Florida:

Vice President of Policy

Foundation for Excellence in Education

Sep 2016 – Present

Tallahassee, Florida, United States

The Vice President of Policy directs state policy development and implementation for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Launched in 2008 by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, ExcelinEd is a national leader in education reform, designing and promoting sound education policy through advocacy, model legislation, rule-making expertise, implementation strategies and public outreach. The Vice President manages a team of leading policy experts and advisors, and is responsible for maintaining current research, data and Foundation positions on education reform policy.

No. Classroom. Experience.

Just like Hanna Skandera, Reynolds is set to become a state education chief despite having no classroom experience but having had a high-level title in connection with Jeb Bush (deputy commissioner of education) as well as having influential positions at the US Department of Education (Skandera’s positions:  senior policy advisor and deputy chief of staff).

Ed-reform makes for a tight and influential club.

For now, Schwinn is out, but with Reynolds replacing her, market-based ed reform will almost certainly not be taking a back seat in the Volunteer State.

Scandal might. But not corporate-styled ed reform.

Too, given a Schwinn-Reynolds connection and Schwinn saying she plans to stay in Tennessee, one wonders what might come of Tennessee hiring its second former TEA chief deputy commissioner.

Reynolds is set to assume the role of TN ed commissioner on July 01, 2023.


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