With a U.S. presidential administration change just around the corner, Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn has been considering how alterations at the federal level will trickle down to the state and local levels in the coming months.
Schwinn was on a tour of school systems in the area on Nov. 19 and visited Franklin County, where she briefly met with the media before visiting Broadview Elementary School.
She said Betsy DeVos, U.S. secretary of education, is in line to be replaced, and whoever gets the nod from President-elect Joe Biden could make a difference in how Tennessee and school systems like Franklin County’s are affected.
Schwinn said Tennessee has enjoyed an advantage in receiving grants from the federal level because of Gov. Bill Lee and his relationship with those within the Trump administration.
She said at present, she can pick up the phone and enter into a conversation with the governor and receive solid support for Tennessee Education Department objectives.
Schwinn said she has been scrutinizing who the education secretary candidates may be so that she can react accordingly to changes at the federal level.
She said a concern she has is how Tennessee’s education platform is treated at the federal level.
“This is who we are and this is what we believe,” she said, referring to the present educational focus coming from the Tennessee level. “We don’t want people at the federal level telling us what to do.”
Schwinn was also asked about how Basic Education Program funding — state appropriations from which the Franklin County School System receives most of its funding — is expected to be handled in the future.
She said BEP expenditures are expected to grow because there is a larger number of kindergarten-aged children going into Tennessee school systems who will be there for the subsequent 13 years.
She added that the funding needs to be there so that systems “don’t get penalized for something that is out of their control.”
Schwinn was also asked about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on education.
“We’re spending a lot of time getting things safe this year for kids to grow and achieve academically,” she said, then referring to the pandemic’s lasting effects on educators. “Everyone is tired.”
She said school system personnel are tired from the extra work they had to do during the summer to get ready for the virtual learning and other changes related to ensuring children are safe while they are at school.
Schwinn said that a plus from going through the experience is that teachers and school administrators will be better prepared to handle the effects next year.
She said another problem the pandemic has caused is the impact on the mental health of parents who have had to juggle their working schedules or be at home for extended periods of time with their children, which is a major deviation from what had been on their previous agendas.
“How do we handle it?” Schwinn said, adding that the issue will have to be addressed.
She also explained her background and how she moved up the ladder to become the education commissioner.
Schwinn was sworn into her most recent position on Feb. 1, 2019.
She said that she comes from a family of educators and grew up in California. She said she is committed to increasing access to an excellent education for all children.
The Tennessee Department of Education website says Schwinn began her work as a high school history and economics teacher, and her early career also included experience as a new teacher coach in south Los Angeles, California.
She also spent time in the private sector, where she supervised work in operations, marketing and information management.
Prior to joining the Tennessee Department of Education, Schwinn served as the chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency.
Schwinn also previously served in other state and district roles as an assistant secretary of education in the Delaware Department of Education and as assistant superintendent of performance management for the Sacramento City Unified School District in California.
Her biographical information also says that she is the founder and former superintendent of Capitol Collegiate Academy, which had been one of the country’s highest-performing charter schools, serving low-income students from a region of Sacramento where she grew up.
She also served as an elected trustee for the Sacramento County Board of Education.
Schwinn earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California-Berkeley, her Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Johns Hopkins University and her Ph.D. in education policy from Claremont Graduate University in California.
She is the parent of two daughters in Tennessee public schools and a 1-year-old son.