Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn tells Tennessee lawmakers she’s ‘committed’ to working with them

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told irate Republican members of the House Education Committee this week that she would work more closely with them going forward following a series of blow-ups that incensed hard-right GOP lawmakers.

“I am committed to that. I know the committee is committed to that,” Schwinn told Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, who raised issues including the uproar among conservatives over a proposed state child welfare wellness-check program during the pandemic that GOP members charged smacked of government intrusion into the home.

“I appreciate the feedback and the ongoing conversations, especially within the last several weeks,” Schwinn said. “I know we’ve come up with a number of really strong ideas about how to continue to strengthen that over the coming months.”

The exchange came amid a revolt by a number of conservative lawmakers, primarily in the House, with threats to hold a no-confidence vote on Schwinn. But the hopes of some House GOP lawmakers and conservative groups of pressuring Republican Gov. Bill Lee to fire Schwinn collapsed after Lee publicly voiced confidence earlier this month in his education commissioner.

“I am very pleased with the work that our commissioner has done so far,” the governor said. During Schwinn’s committee appearance, Cepicky, who had initially supported a no-confidence vote but later dropped it after Lee’s comment, walked the commissioner through several controversies, allowing her to respond and say things would be different going forward.

“There has to be trust between you and this committee,” Cepicky said. “We have to know that philosophically we are on the same page moving forward. There has to be cooperation between us, you and Gov. Bill Lee. There are a million kids depending on us to get it right.”

Noting there have been “some missteps,” Cepicky said “we’ve talked about that. We need to broach it very quickly. But we understand the missteps by the department cannot happen again.”

He said the Child Well-Being Task Force concept of doing child welfare checks at home with students out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic should “never have seen the light of day” and that “we’ve got to build that trust back up between us.”

Lawmakers, who were bombarded with calls, don’t like being “blind-sided,” Cepicky added.

Schwinn agreed. “As it relates to the Child Well-Being Task Force, the document is down. We’ve talked through a number of ways in which we could have made very different decisions … that is something we have learned.”

She did push back gently on one flap involving the Education Department’s inclusion of Common Core guidelines as one of the resources teachers and parents could utilize while assisting students with online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schwinn did say the department will find ways of “providing for some safeguards to make sure that every material up there is material we can stand up behind as a Department of Education.”

But she said the inclusion of Common Core curriculum was not her doing and she had been unaware of it.

“And to be clear, I do not support Common Core,” she added. “That was a mistake by the department. It was taken down as soon as we heard about it. That was an error.”

Common Core curriculum was part of a national effort by K-12 education reformers to bring some level of standardization of instruction nationally to improve student learning and performance. Tennessee House members voted on a bipartisan basis to torpedo the state’s adoption of it some years back.

State Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, told Schwinn the department doesn’t have responsibility for teaching students about “diversity and those types of things” and should instead focus on basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

“If we could just all agree to get our minds and our hearts and our attention brought on the need of educating our children and get rid of our social ideas and all of these things that we’re fixated on and getting ‘my little part,’ just forget about all of that and just focus on the education of our children, I think we could achieve what we need to and set the standard that the whole United States would be wanting to follow,” he said.

Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, told the Times Free Press he has been meeting and working with Schwinn in recent weeks, noting ‘she’s got some good ideas and things, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, let’s work with her. Now, when we go back in in January, if [lawmakers] continue to have issues, then that’s another question.”

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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