NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Commissioner Penny Schwinn will leave her post at the Tennessee Department of Education at the end of the school year, the department announced Monday.
Schwinn has served as Education Commissioner since 2019 and has overseen the implementation of Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial school vouchers program and the overhaul of the state’s education funding formula.
“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,” Lee said. “I have tremendous gratitude for her leadership and wish her much success in her next chapter.”
Taking the mantle next will be Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, department officials said. Reynolds currently serves as the vice president of policy for ExcelInEd, an education reform nonprofit based in Tallahassee, Florida. She has held that position since 2016, according to her LinkedIn page.
“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,” Lee said of his new education commissioner. “I welcome her to Tennessee and appreciate her service to students, families and teachers across the state.”
Reynolds began her career as a lobbyist in the Texas legislature before becoming an aide/policy director. She joined the education world in the early 2000s.
Prior to working with ExcelInEd, Reynolds was the Chief Deputy Commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, where she “oversaw the day-to-day operations of the agency and engaged and collaborated with education stakeholders in the development, implementation and delivery of education programs and initiatives throughout Texas,” according to her bio on KnowledgeWorks, where she currently serves on the board of directors.
That’s the same role Schwinn had when she was in Texas, though Schwinn actually took the role after Reynolds when Reynolds moved to ExcelInEd.
Relevant to Tennessee’s current education landscape, one of ExcelinEd’s goals is to “empower families with opportunity” through the introduction of more charter schools.
Reynolds herself wrote a piece back in 2021 titled “What to do with COVID-19 relief marked for education? Invest in charter schools.”
“I want to see that same energy for our traditional public school,” Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D—Memphis) said.
Unlike Schwinn, Reynolds does not hold any education certifications or prior teaching experience. State Capitol Reporter Chris O’Brien asked the governor’s office if that’s appropriate.
“Ms. Reynolds has a distinguished career with nearly three decades of education policy experience,” spokesperson Jade Byers said. “The Governor has full confidence in her ability to serve Tennessee students, families and teachers.”
O’Brien asked the same question of Senate leadership.
“Those who are in education at the highest level should at least have some experience in the classroom,” Akbari said. “But I don’t think that that negates a person from serving in this capacity.”
Republican leadership pointed to the fact that they’ve barely even known Reynolds will be in this role.
“I’ve not met the new commissioner-designee that has been announced,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R—Franklin) said. “I look forward to meeting her and getting to know her and hope that we can have a good working relationship moving forward.”
Akbari did point out she has yet to meet the commissioner-appointee and won’t be quick to judge.
“The main thing for me is I want to keep an open mind,” she said. “But at the end of the day, my number one goal is no matter where a student lives, no matter the ZIP code, no matter the grand division, they can go to a well-funded public school.”
Johnson said he felt confident no matter who the pick is.
“What I know about Governor Lee is that he’s very committed to improving educational outcomes in the state, as are we in the General Assembly,” he said. “I’m confident that we can work with whoever the governor designates to be the next commissioner.”
Tennessee education organizations said they looked forward to working with the new commissioner to advance improvements in education for all Tennessee students.
“At the Tennessee Education Association, the best interests of Tennessee public school students and educators are the foundation of everything we do,” said TEA President Tanya Coats. “On behalf of our tens of thousands of members statewide, I look forward to working closely with the new commissioner to ensure our public school educators have a voice in the new administration.
“As the person appointed to lead our state’s system of public schools, I expect the new commissioner will share our organization’s commitment to strengthening, promoting and protecting Tennessee’s great public schools and the students and educators they serve.”
JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, shared a similar sentiment:
“We wish Penny Schwinn all the best in her future endeavors,” he said. “Although her accomplishments have been mixed, the results will ultimately be determined over time. Governor Lee now has an opportunity to shift the Tennessee Department of Education in a new direction. A new leader needs to look inward, as well as outward. The TDOE needs to rebuild and fill critical positions in the Department to serve the needs of parents, pupils, educators, and school districts. Outwardly, the TDOE needs to reconnect with the stakeholders here in Tennessee.
“We look forward to working with the Lee Administration and the new Commissioner Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds to continue making Tennessee the best place to raise a family and educate all children. Together, we can unleash the full potential of K-12 education to provide children the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills that will enable them to develop their full potential and become successful members of society.”
Reynolds will be sworn in July 1. Until she is sworn in, Sam Pearcy, the deputy commissioner of operations at TDOE, will serve as interim commissioner following Schwinn’s exit, according to the governor’s office.