Texan Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds to lead Tennessee Department of Education as Penny Schwinn quits

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

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will become the first Hispanic-American to lead the Tennessee Department of Education when she takes office on July 1.

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

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

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

(READ MORE: Top bills Tennessee lawmakers left on the table in 2023)

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

Reynolds brings political experience, if not class chops

In Reynolds, Lee chose a leader who has plenty of political and political experience, but little or no experience leading a class.

Along with her appointment, she will be actively working on her teaching license from Tennessee.

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

Reynolds graduated in 1987 with a degree in political science 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 of the Government at the time. George W. Bush and later served as Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency.

At the federal level, she served in the Bush administration under US Secretaries of Education Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings.

(READ MORE: 40% of Hamilton County third graders are at risk of being held back)

Since 2016, Reynolds has served as vice president of policy for ExcelinEd, launched by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2008 to pursue education policies he says improve student learning and reduce inequality. These include emphasizing early literacy and school accountability, and providing families with more educational choices, such as charter schools and vouchers.

She currently serves on the boards of several nonprofit educational organizations, including the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and Texas-based charter school operator IDEA Public Schools. His LinkedIn profile also lists the Pahara Institute’s advanced educational leadership studies.

Schwinn leaves with a mixed record

Schwinn’s departure comes after more than four tumultuous years 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 to read. .

The pandemic, she said, was by far her biggest challenge, prompting Tennessee to become a national leader in providing specialized programs to bolster learning for students who have fallen behind.

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

Schwinn was 36 when Lee hired her for one of his most senior positions at the firm 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, Calif., where she still serves on the board of administration. Schwinn briefly held leadership positions for the Sacramento School District and the Delaware Department of Education before becoming deputy chief commissioner of Texas academics in 2016.

(READ MORE: Bill to add Hamilton and Knox counties to Tennessee private school voucher program clears State House)

His tenure in Tennessee was marked with both great victories and great controversy.

She helped Lee win a major victory last year by rewriting 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 spearheaded many major initiatives, including a comprehensive plan to improve literacy, help students recover from learning loss due to the pandemic, and expand teacher training programs.

But in his first nine months on the job, almost a fifth of education department employees left, mostly as a result of resignations. And early on, it frustrated lawmakers who said they rolled out initiatives and took administrative shortcuts without sufficient legislative input, review or approval.

On Monday, Schwinn thanked Lee for “taking a chance,” adding, “It’s been very hard and very rewarding work.”

Chalkbeat (chalkbeat.org) is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.

Marta Aldrich is senior correspondent and covers the Chalkbeat Tennessee State House. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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