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Bill Lee appoints new education commissioner, locals weigh in on potential impact

Brandon Paykamian • Jan 23, 2019 at 6:51 PM

Ahead of Gov. Bill Lee’s inauguration on Saturday, the Republican announced his pick for new education commissioner Thursday to replace Candice McQueen. Penny Schwinn, who has served as deputy commissioner of education in Texas, will now be at the helm. 

“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,” Lee said in a press release last week. “As a former teacher and seasoned administrator, she will help make Tennessee a leader in the nation on education.”

On Tuesday, local education officials weighed in on the new appointment. Some of the biggest issues on officials’ minds included the controversy over the amount of state testing and past problems with the TNReady state assessment, which bogged down testing time for students under McQueen in 2017. 

“We are hopeful that Dr. Schwinn’s experience with state testing will help calm concerns from our community, and many other communities, about the testing troubles we have encountered with TNReady,” Johnson City Board of Education Chairman Tim Belisle said.

However, local education officials hope to see the same emphasis on literacy that was promoted under McQueen and former Gov. Bill Haslam. 

“It will be crucial that state and district leaders work together as we continue to expand and improve upon the advances we’ve made in public education in Tennessee,” Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett said.  

Washington County Schools Director Bill Flanary agreed on these two issues. 

“Like most Tennessee educators, I want to see our testing protocol examined. The online system has been fraught with problems. Accountability is far from where it should be. Teachers question whether or not the assessments are an accurate reflection of the standards. The new commissioner should focus on these issues,” he said. “Beyond that, I hope she keeps our state's emphasis on early grade literacy front and center. It was the right work in 2018, and it's the right work now.” 

Retired educator and Johnson City Press education columnist Bill Smith said he is concerned about her advocacy of charter schools — an issue he has been highly critical of and said diverts money away from public education.

Following Schwinn’s career teaching for Teach For America, which Smith said takes graduates from “fields other than education,” Schwinn had previous experience promoting charter schools and founding Capitol Collegiate Academy, a charter school in South Sacramento.

Smith said she may lack the public school experience necessary to serve as commissioner. 

“Bottom line, Penny Schwinn may have the organizational and bureaucratic skills to tackle the testing problems we've had in Tennessee — maybe. But in the end, this appointment is a statement of disrespect for the field of education and educators in general and an indication that Mr. Lee is looking in the wrong places for good advice about how to improve education,” he said. “Like most successful businesspeople, Lee thinks business acumen is the key to solving every problem, and it suggests that he's going to be pushing vouchers and charters pretty hard. But then he said that in his campaign, so that's not a surprise.” 

Smith believes the appointment was largely politically and ideologically motivated. He said Schwinn’s agenda is clear — “She’s in favor of charter schools” just as Lee is. 

“It's part of a dangerous pattern of politicians like Lee — let's face it, particularly Republicans — who believe, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that our schools are so awful that it's time to put anyone in charge of them as long as the people in charge are not educators,” he said. “As we watch the Trump administration disintegrate, it's helpful to remember that part of the problem here is that the Republicans have cultivated anti-intellectualism and a disdain for expertise for so long that now we have a president who doesn't read, doesn't seek advice from knowledgeable people and, in fact, apparently chooses advisers and cabinet members literally because they don't hold traditional expertise in the fields in which they will be wielding so much influence.” 

The Johnson City Press was unable to reach Schwinn for comment.

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