With the governor’s call for a special legislative session this week to address education issues in Tennessee, I filed legislation Thursday afternoon urging a “no confidence” vote in regards to Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.
I don’t know where to begin with respect to the reasons why out-of-state transplant Commissioner Schwinn should be replaced immediately. There are simply too many reasons to enumerate.
Schwinn, who grew up in California and is a graduate of the University of California at Berkley, never should have been appointed Tennessee education commissioner, in my opinion.
She has a minimal amount of actual classroom teaching experience — only about two years based on the documents I have reviewed.
Additionally, prior to being appointed by Gov. Bill Lee to her current position, she had no connection with our great state and had a legacy of controversy.
She left her prior position with the Texas Education Agency after awarding a controversial no-bid contract to a company known as SPEDx, which used a subcontractor with whom she had a personal relationship.
Sound familiar? It certainly seems like a pattern based on her actions here in Tennessee.
Indeed, here in Tennessee, Schwinn bypassed the legislature and a competitive bid process and awarded $2.5 million — which exceeded the $750,000 budgeted by the legislature — in a no-bid contract to a Florida company known as ClassWallet to administer the financial aspects of the controversial ESA/school voucher program, which passed the House by only one vote and has since been struck down by our judicial system as unconstitutional.
Then, when questioned by the legislature, Schwinn’s chief financial officer said it was decided without legislative approval to use teacher-pay funds from an expired program to fund the increased voucher program cost due to the no-bid contract awarded.
In essence, Schwinn effectively decided to rob teacher pay to finance an unauthorized and inexplicable, unilateral action by the Department of Education led by Schwinn.
There are other parallels between Texas and Tennessee in relation to Schwinn.
In Texas, the SPEDx whistleblower Laurie Kash, who was fired by the Texas Education Agency, was awarded more than $200,000 in damages for wrongful termination.
Here in Tennessee, we now have a $1.5 million lawsuit pending against our state by Katie Poulos, who was recruited by Schwinn from New Mexico to join her staff and now is claiming mistreatment at the hands of Schwinn.
When Schwinn did what she did in Texas, Texas auditors found that there had been a failure to follow state policies in the award of the no-bid contract, and the Texas Education Agency was ordered to repay more than $2.5 million spent on the contract to the federal government.
On the heels of this, Schwinn was welcomed with open arms to Tennessee by Gov. Lee. Since being here, Schwinn has created nothing but problems, in my opinion.
Under her leadership, or rather lack thereof, there has been what I would call an excessive turnover rate, which some have estimated to be 19% and others have estimated to be 33%.
The Tennessee Department of Education has certainly far exceeded the norms of attrition of employees, with 250 resignations within the first year of her appointment, which included individuals with decades of institutional knowledge.
This is not normal. It left local school leaders uncertain of who to call with questions, and more importantly, and sadly, it harmed Tennessee students.
She has created a top-heavy model with the Department of Education, increasing the number of chiefs or assistant commissioners from 13 to 23, who draw an average annual salary exceeding $135,000.
This is an increase of $1.35 million over the prior administration, with nothing to show for it. She has grown government, not limited or minimized it, and limited government is what I believe the majority of Tennesseans desire.
Limiting government should certainly be an overriding goal of our Republican super-majority legislature.
Apart from expanding the number of higher-salaried staff working under her, Schwinn also has hired out-of-state residents, at least one of whom remains out-of-state while working for the Tennessee Department of Education.
For example, Schwinn recently hired Sophie Mann as the Tennessee “Director of Accountability.”
Mann is a resident of Chicago, not of Tennessee, which would have been a requirement of prior administrations. This is extremely bothersome to me.
Another individual, Katie Houghlin, who worked with Schwinn in Texas and was recruited by Schwinn to join her as an assistant commissioner in Tennessee, was stripped of her title due to an investigation revealing that she verbally abused employees under her supervision.
It is my understanding that she remains employed by the department and handles special projects for Schwinn, and received only a $5,000 salary decrease from $140,000 to $135,000 per year after her abuse of employees was revealed.
To add to the laundry list of reasons why Tennessee needs a new education commissioner, last year Schwinn proposed a literacy bill to the legislature, which essentially promoted Common Core standards, which the majority of Tennessee citizens have overwhelmingly criticized and rejected and have fought to eradicate.
The bill appeared aimed at certain vendors, rather on the actual goal of teaching children to read.
The icing on the cake has been Schwinn’s flawed handling of COVID-19. She has completely lacked any leadership on this front, in my opinion.
She drug her feet in sending out a reopening plan for Tennessee schools. She pressured schools into reopening while keeping the doors to the Department of Education closed and allowing employees to work from home.
The “do as I say, not as I do” model simply does not work. It is my understanding that she failed to timely provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies to schools.
The nail in the coffin was her ill-conceived monthly child well-being inspections that sparked a controversy wave across Tennessee due to not only unreasonably expanding teacher workload, but also due to unreasonably expanding government into an overly intrusive, big-brother model.
I cannot say that I’m surprised by this poorly judged proposal, given the fact that Schwinn served under U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
We don’t need left-leaning, liberal policies being brought from California to the conservative state of Tennessee.
The critical issue is this: Tennessee has pitiful math and reading competency levels measured at the third- and eighth-grade levels.
Rather than focus on that problem and make it the priority for the Department of Education to assist local schools and teachers, Schwinn appears focused on “whole-child” “social-emotional learning” and social issues in a limited population of students in our schools.
The State of Tennessee and the federal government already have agencies and departments established to address social issues.
Expanding Tennessee’s Department of Education into a social welfare agency is exactly what Tennessee and Tennesseans do not want.
We are a conservative, limited government state that rejects big government and big-government spending of citizens’ tax dollars on broad expansive programs.
Schwinn’s agenda and her actions do not seem to reflect the fact that Tennessee needs a commissioner of education from Tennessee, who knows our state, knows our students, knows our teachers and knows our local communities.
BRUCE GRIFFEY, R-Paris, represents the 75th District, which includes Henry County, in the Tennessee House of Representatives. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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