Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reins of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.