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.