Penny Schwinn

Penny Schwinn leaving as education commissioner in Lee adminstration

Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bobby Rolfe and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn applaud Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Penny Schwinn, Gov. Bill Lee’s education commissioner since 2019, is leaving in July. She will be succeeded by Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds. Reynolds is a vice president of ExcelinEd, a school choice organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointment of Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds as commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), effective July 1. Reynolds will succeed Dr. Penny Schwinn, who will step down at the end of the school year after more than four years of service to Tennesseans.

“During her years of dedicated service, Penny has played a key role in our administration’s work to ensure educational opportunity for Tennessee students and secure the next generation of teachers, while navigating historic learning challenges,” said Lee. “I have tremendous gratitude for her leadership and wish her much success in her next chapter.”

Dr. Penny Schwinn joined the Lee administration in January 2019 and has served the state through some of the most challenging education crises in modern history. During Schwinn’s tenure, considerable initiatives to accelerate K-12 education have been implemented and several nationally recognized initiatives have been introduced, including:

• School Funding Reform: In 2022, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act reformed the state’s outdated 30-year-old funding formula and made the largest recurring investment in state history.

• Education Savings Account Program: Tennessee implemented the Education Savings Account (ESA) program to give Tennessee parents a choice in their child’s education. Today, 1,400 students have been approved to attend the school of their choice and nearly 500 students are enrolled in a participating school.

• Preparing the Future Workforce: Tennessee has strengthened vocational education opportunities to give students the skills needed to join the workforce, investing $500 million to expand middle and high school career and technical education programs and extending additional dual enrollment credits for high school juniors and seniors through the Governor’s Investment in Education (GIVE) program. Tennessee also created the Future Workforce Initiative to increase STEM training in K-12 schools, aimed at placing Tennessee in the top 25 states for creating technology jobs by launching new Computer Science and STEM-focused programs

• Teaching Apprenticeship: Tennessee became the first state in the country to make teaching an apprentice-based profession, making it free to become a teacher while being paid to do so. The Grow Your Own initiative has significantly increased the number of teachers, special education and ESL endorsements, aspiring principals and assistant principals, and school leaders of color.

• Prioritizing Literacy & Learning Loss Intervention: Tennessee was among the first states to get students back in the classroom in 2020 and swiftly address learning loss. During an historic special legislative session in January 2021, Gov. Lee and members of the General Assembly passed strong literacy programs to benefit students, namely Reading 360, which has led to almost full academic recovery and created the largest permanent summer school program serving pre-K–9th grade and the largest state tutoring program in the country with over 200,000 students served.

• Innovative School Models: With the single largest one-time investment in public education in state history, Tennessee’s Innovative School Models grant expanded postsecondary opportunities for middle and high school students and more than quadrupled the number of apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities for students.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will succeed Schwinn as commissioner of TDOE.

“Lizzette’s significant education policy expertise and leadership make her well-suited to continue our work to deliver a high-quality education and expand school choice for Tennessee students,” said Lee. “I welcome her to Tennessee and appreciate her service to students, families and teachers across the state.”

Reynolds is currently the Vice President of Policy for ExcelinEd and has previously served as deputy legislative director for then-Governor George W. Bush, Special Assistant in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Regional Representative for U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Chief Deputy Commissioner at the Texas Education Agency. Her career reflects a deep commitment to school choice, assessment and accountability, college and career pathways and education policy. She earned her undergraduate degree from Southwestern University. She is married to David Reynolds and has three children, Luke, Lillianna and Joaquin.

Sam Pearcy, currently Deputy Commissioner of Operations at TDOE, will serve as the department’s interim commissioner until July 1.

Ain’t Dunn yet: Recently retired lawmaker named education adviser

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Just days after officially ending his time as a state lawmaker, former Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) has been hired as a senior adviser to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Dunn, who was first elected to the House in 1994, was the longtime sponsor of efforts to pass school voucher legislation, which finally succeeded in 2019 only to be tied up in court over constitutional questions of having the program apply only to the state’s two largest counties without the backing of voters of local legislative bodies. The new job pays $98,000 per year.

Here’s an excerpt of what The Tennessee Journal wrote on the occasion of Dunn’s retirement announcement in September 2019:

An arborist by profession, the devout Catholic and father of five has referred to himself as a “bleeding heart conservative.” While he was unafraid to champion controversial causes and challenge Democratic leaders (on his first day in office in 1995, he was the only Republican to vote against the re-election of Rep. Jimmy Naifeh as speaker), Dunn became known for his easygoing style and sense of humor. For example, when a House subcommittee was on the verge of killing his proposal to convert pre-kindergarten to a summer program in 2006, Dunn suggested the panel instead study the idea over the summer. It didn’t work, but it got a good laugh. […]

Not all of Dunn’s efforts were futile. His multi-year effort to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the General Assembly while Democrats were in charge. The measure received more than 80% of the vote in the 2006 election. Dunn was also a major supporter of a constitutional amendment approved in 2014 to restore state lawmakers’ power to restrict access to abortions.

“You can go out dead, defeated, or on your own terms. I don’t like the first two choices, so the third one’s rather appealing.”

—Dunn to WKRN-TV about his plans to retire from the House.

The Republican takeover of the General Assembly cleared the path for several controversial measures sponsored by Dunn, including 2011 bills to do away with collective bargaining rights for teachers and dial back their tenure protections. He passed a 2012 bill to protect teachers who allow students to criticize evolution and climate change. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam let the so-called “monkey bill” become law without his signature.

Dunn supported Haslam’s Improve Act to boost road funding, which included a 6-cent gas tax hike but also featured several tax cuts in other areas. Dunn was one of two Republicans to vote against a 2016 conference committee deal to eliminate the state’s Hall income tax on stock and bond earnings by 2022 on the basis that it didn’t create a replacement tax or cut other programs. […]

Dunn flirted with a bid to succeed Casada as speaker on a platform of returning a “level of boredom” to the chamber, but ultimately bowed out of the race. In announcing his retirement plans, Dunn said he wanted to leave on a “high point” of passing the voucher bill and another law to trigger a ban on abortions in Tennessee should Roe v. Wade be overturned.


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