Lottery scandal

Antwan Wilson, D.C. schools chancellor and former Denver educator, forced to resign

Antwan Wilson visits Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Northeast Washington, D.C., February 2, 2018. (Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Antwan Wilson, a former Denver educator who served for the past year as chancellor of the high-profile Washington, D.C. school district, was forced to resign Tuesday.

According to the Washington Post, Wilson skirted Washington, D.C.’s competitive school lottery process so his oldest daughter could transfer to a high-performing high school.

“I wish I could go back and look up and talk to as many people as I could about the challenge I was facing,” Wilson told the Post a day before he resigned. “I failed miserably. It wasn’t a mistake out of anything other than trying to ensure that my daughter’s well-being was taken care of.”

The Post called Wilson’s resignation “a stunningly swift fall for an educator hailed as the heir to the school reform agenda crafted by Michelle Rhee,” and noted that it’s a political blow to the mayor who appointed him chancellor last year.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wilson is “an extraordinary educator” who made a mistake, the Post reported. She initially said she remained confident in his ability to run the school system but said she later realized it would be too difficult for him to regain the public’s trust.

Wilson used Washington, D.C.’s lottery system to find schools for his three children, according to the Post. His oldest daughter, a high school sophomore, initially enrolled at a magnet school called Duke Ellington School of the Arts. But after a few weeks, the family wanted to transfer her. Wilson’s wife coordinated with the deputy mayor, and the teen transferred to high-performing Wilson High, which is not the family’s neighborhood school.

The school has a wait list of more than 600 students.

Before taking the top job in Washington, D.C., Wilson served for two and a half years as superintendent of the Oakland, California, school district. Before that, he had a long career in Denver. He was an assistant superintendent in Denver Public Schools for five years, supervising middle, high, and alternative schools. He was also an instructional superintendent supervising school principals, and principal of the now-closed Montbello High School.

New leader

Lee picks Texas academic chief Penny Schwinn as Tennessee’s next education commissioner

Penny Schwinn will be Tennessee's education commissioner under governor-elect Bill Lee. He announced her hiring on Thursday, two days before his inauguration. (Photo courtesy of Bill Lee Transition Team)

Fast facts about Schwinn

  • Age: 36
  • Hometown: Sacramento, California
  • Bachelor of Arts, University of California-Berkeley, 2004
  • Master of Arts in Teaching, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
  • Ph.D. in Education Policy, Claremont Graduate University, 2016

An educator who began her career with Teach For America and has been the academic chief for Texas will be Tennessee’s next education commissioner.

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by governor-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for academic programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

In a statement, Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator. An accompanying news release touted her reform work for leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” and expansion of career readiness programs for students in Texas.

“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,” said Lee.

Schwinn was among the last cabinet hires for Lee, who will take the oath of office on Saturday. The responsibilities are also are among the most specialized as the governor-elect pledged to improve public education in a state that has seen gains on national tests in recent years, even as it has struggled with to transition to online exams in its own testing program.

Schwinn is viewed as a change agent who is focused on students but also has been criticized for the reforms that she’s led in multiple states.

Before Texas, she was an assistant education secretary in Delaware, an assistant superintendent in Sacramento, California, where she grew up, and she served as an elected school board member.

She started her education career with Teach For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs, and taught high school history and economics for Baltimore public schools. Returning to her hometown, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students similar to those that her mother taught for four decades.

Last year, she was the youngest of three finalists to be considered for Massachusetts’ education commissioner, a job that went to Jeffrey Riley, a native of the state.

In Tennessee, Schwinn will execute Lee’s vision on policies affecting about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.

With his choice, Lee has gone outside of Tennessee and traditional classroom training, so she will have to work steadily to build trust with the state’s numerous stakeholders in public education. Groups that represent the state’s superintendents and teachers had urged the Republican businessman to choose someone with a deep knowledge of education policy in Tennessee.

Schwinn follows two education commissioners under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach For America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches. In particular, Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and politically contentious academic standards known as Common Core.

Schwinn was among the last cabinet picks for Lee, who will take the oath of office on Saturday and will dig in quickly to prepare his first proposed spending plan in Tennessee.

Setting and overseeing public education policy is among the biggest responsibilities of state government, which spends $5 billion of its $37.5 billion budget on schools and is required under federal law to administer annual tests to assess student progress.

Lee also campaigned that education would be one of his top priorities, promising a renewed focus on career, technical and agricultural education; more competitive pay for educators; a closer look at the state’s testing program; and more school options for parents to choose from.

Schwinn’s job will be to help Lee implement that vision, according to McQueen, who calls the state’s top education job “a unique opportunity.”

“You’re also making sure that public education is being supported well around resources and human capital and that you have high expectations for all students, not just certain groups. You have to elevate equity in every single thing you do,” McQueen told Chalkbeat last month before stepping down to become CEO of a national group focused on teacher quality.

Among Schwinn’s first tasks will be overseeing the transition to one or more companies that will take over Tennessee’s testing program beginning next school year. McQueen ordered a new request for testing proposals after a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s TNReady assessment under current vendor Questar and previous vendor Measurement Inc. Questar officials say they plan to pursue the state’s contract again.

She’ll also work with the governor’s office to allocate resources for education in accordance with the first state budget pounded out by Lee and the legislature. For instance, the governor-elect said frequently he wants a greater emphasis in career and technical education in schools — an idea that is popular with legislators. But legislators also want money to hire more law enforcement officers to police schools. And despite increased allocations for teacher pay, salaries for the state’s educators continue to trail the national average.

Q&A

Testing, vouchers, and pre-K: Tennessee legislature’s new ed leader weighs in

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Mark White is the new chairman of Tennessee's House Education Committee, a legislative gatekeeper for hundreds of bills dealing with public education. The Memphis Republican has served in the House since 2010.

With a major shift in leadership happening at the State Capitol, the new chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Committee wants to make sure that the state doesn’t backslide when it comes to public education.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican in office since 2010, was tapped by House Speaker Glen Casada last week to lead the powerful committee, while Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee.

White and Gresham believe that Tennessee’s gains on national tests beginning in 2013 stem from stronger academic standards in classrooms and test score-driven systems for holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. Both have said they don’t want to see dramatic changes to the state’s school improvement policies.

“There’s always things you can tweak or make better, but we don’t want to kill the things that are working,” White said. “We’ve made so many positive gains in the last eight years under Gov. Bill Haslam that I want to make sure we don’t go backward.”

White, 68, holds an education degree from the University of Memphis and was a science teacher and principal in the 1970s at Harding Academy, a private high school in Memphis, before starting an event business

Before his appointment, he spoke with Chalkbeat about issues on the horizon, Tennessee’s testing dilemma, the buzz on school vouchers under governor-elect Bill Lee, and whether there’s an appetite to invest more money in pre-K. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the big issues you expect to tackle this year in the legislature?

We need more alignment between K-12 and higher education with more opportunities for students to pursue dual enrollment [which enables students to take college-level courses while they’re in high school]. We also want more vocational and technical education courses so that students are being introduced to marketable skills during high school. We want more of our students to come out of high school with not only a diploma but also a certificate for a particular skill. If you can get them interested in a skill in high school, students much more likely to move on and, if they like working with their hands and have a certification, maybe go straight to work.

Tennessee has yet to cleanly administer and score its TNReady test during the last three years. Can the state restore the credibility of its testing program?

No superintendent has come to me and said we don’t like the test. They like the data that TNReady generates based on our higher standards. The issue has been online administration. I’m pleased that we’re just testing high school students online this year. I don’t know that elementary grades should ever test online. But for all grades, we’ve got to get testing right this year. We can’t afford another year of problems.

What about the amount of testing? Even with the elimination of two high school exams this school year, many teachers and parents are concerned that students test too much, especially in high school where Tennessee exceeds federal requirements.

We’re going to keep looking at that. Through the work of the state’s testing task force, we eliminated chemistry and English III this school year. But I believe that, if we’re going to test to the highest standards, we’ve got to test to make sure there’s been a full year of growth and that teachers are teaching effectively.


After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee


School vouchers are a perennial issue in the legislature and, with a new governor wanting to give parents more education options, do you think this will be the year that some type of voucher bill passes?

There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet. With the Lee administration being new, I don’t know if they’re going to push it. And even if they do push it, it probably won’t be this year.

I believe in parental choice, but the problem with vouchers moving forward is accountability. We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it. If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.

You’ve been a point person on early childhood education. Is anything happening there?

I’ve talked a lot with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, and they’re wanting to expand our pre-K programs. I don’t want to lose the conversation around pre-K dollars, but I do think it would be better to think in terms of pre-K through the third grade. Right now only a third of our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, so how do we invest our money up until that milestone grade? I think that would be an easier conversation.

I also think that these are the issues that really matter in Tennessee and are going to lead to improvements. This year in the legislature, I’d like to talk about the things that make a difference and not just sit there and debate whether you like TNReady or not. Those conversations don’t move the needle. It’s old news.