Texan Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds to lead Tenn. education department as Penny Schwinn exits

A woman stands in a school library and gestures with her hands.
Penny Schwinn has been Gov. Bill Lee’s education commissioner since he took office in 2019. (Tennessee Department of Education)

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Penny Schwinn will step down as Tennessee’s education chief at the end of this school year and be replaced by a former Texas administrator who currently oversees policy for the Jeb Bush-founded advocacy group ExcelinEd.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will become the first Hispanic American to lead Tennessee’s education department when she starts her job on July 1.

Meanwhile, Schwinn told reporters Monday that she plans to continue living in Tennessee and will share her next venture at a later date. 

“It’s just the right time for me and my family,” said Schwinn, a mother of three young children, about leaving after more than four years as education commissioner.

The changes, announced Monday by Gov. Bill Lee, come at a critical time for the state’s 1 million public school students and just a few months into the second term of an administration that has been one of the most active in history on changing education policies.

Tennessee is shifting to a new education funding formula, enforcing a controversial new third-grade retention policy for struggling readers, operating large-scale tutoring and summer learning programs to help students catch up from the pandemic, expanding its private school voucher program to a third major city, and fortifying its school buildings after a Nashville school shooting left six people dead on March 27. Replenishing Tennessee’s teacher supply is also a priority.

Reynolds brings policy experience, if not classroom chops

In Reynolds, Lee has chosen a leader who is heavy on political and policy experience but who has little to no experience leading a classroom.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds (Courtesy of ExcelinEd)

In conjunction with her appointment, she will actively work toward her Tennessee teaching license.

“The governor has full confidence in her ability to serve Tennessee students, families, and teachers,” said Jade Byers, Lee’s spokeswoman.

Reynolds graduated in 1987 with a political science degree from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, before embarking on nearly three decades of policy and legislative work in education at the state and federal levels.

In her home state, she was deputy legislative director for then-Gov. George W. Bush and later served as chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency. 

At the federal level, she worked in the Bush administration under U.S. education secretaries Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings.

Since 2016, Reynolds has been vice president of policy for ExcelinEd, launched by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2008 to pursue education policies that he believes improve student learning and lessen inequities. They include emphasizing early literacy and school accountability, and giving families more education choices such as charter schools and vouchers.

She currently sits on the boards of several nonprofit education organizations, including KnowledgeWorks Foundation and the Texas-based charter school operator IDEA Public Schools. Her LinkedIn profile also lists advanced studies in education leadership from the Pahara Institute.

Schwinn leaves with a mixed record

Schwinn’s departure comes after more than four tumultuous years of overseeing schools during a global pandemic and while ushering in sweeping changes in how the state funds its schools and students, and how it teaches its students how to read.

The pandemic, she said, was easily her greatest challenge, spurring Tennessee to become a national leader in providing specialized programs to bolster learning for students who fell behind.

“When we look at the last four and a half years and the pretty incredible challenges that we’ve faced in education across this country, I cannot think of a state that has shown more leadership than Tennessee,” she said.

Schwinn was 36 when Lee hired her for one of his most important cabinet jobs days before his first inauguration in 2019.

She had been on a fast track after starting her career in 2004 in Baltimore with Teach for America and later founding Capitol Collegiate Academy, a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she still serves on the board of directors. Schwinn served briefly in leadership roles for Sacramento’s school district and Delaware’s department of education before becoming chief deputy commissioner of academics for Texas in 2016. 

Her tenure in Tennessee has been marked by both big wins and big controversies.

She helped Lee deliver a major victory last year with the rewrite of the state’s 30-year-old education funding formula to let funding follow the student, and set aside more money for students with higher needs. She also shepherded numerous major initiatives, including a comprehensive plan to improve literacy, help students recover from pandemic learning loss, and expand grow-your-own teacher training programs.

But in her first nine months on the job, nearly a fifth of the education department’s employees left, mostly from resignations. And early on, she frustrated lawmakers who said she rolled out initiatives and took administrative shortcuts without ample legislative input, review, or approval.

On Monday, Schwinn thanked Lee for “taking a chance on me,” adding: “It has been a very tough and very rewarding job.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about Reynolds.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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