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Tennessee’s top education official stepping down, being replaced by ‘school choice’ advocate

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn will be replaced by Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds.
TN Photo Services
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn will be replaced by Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds.

Tennessee’s top education official is stepping down from her post. Penny Schwinn has served as education commissioner since 2019, implementing major logistical and academic changes.

During Schwinn’s tenure, the state launched a $100 million phonics-based literacy program and overhauled its K-12 funding formula. Under her leadership, Tennessee became the first state in the country to have its teacher apprenticeship program federally registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Schwinn also led Tennessee’s education department through a period of immense uncertainty. Gov. Bill Lee thanked her for her service in a statement released Monday afternoon.

“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.

In an interview with online education outlet The 74, Schwinn called the ongoing culture wars in Tennessee “distracting.” In recent years, Tennessee has restricted what students can learn about racism and rolled back rights for trans students. Schwinn said she has remained focused on educating students “first and foremost.”

Her time as commissioner wasn’t without its own controversy. Democrats have criticized Schwinn for being friendly to charter schools and school voucher programs. Some lawmakers raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest when she signed a contract with a company her husband worked for. And the conservative group Moms for Liberty complained that Schwinn’s department declined to investigate Williamson County’s English curriculum, which they claimed violated the state’s prohibited concepts law.

Schwinn said she’s leaving with some regrets, like how the department handled the struggling Achievement School District and its response to student mental health during the pandemic.

Schwinn will step down at the end of the school year. Gov. Lee has tapped Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds to replace her, beginning July 1.

“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.

Gonzalez Reynolds said her first order of business is supporting Tennessee’s school voucher program, also known as education savings accounts. The controversial policy allows families within certain income limits to use public school dollars to pay private school costs. Reynolds currently serves as vice president of policy for ExcelInEd, a school choice group launched by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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