Tennessee education commissioner testifies before committee after call for no-confidence vote

State lawmakers aired grievances over missteps by the Tennessee Department of Education to Commissioner Penny Schwinn as she appeared before the House Education Committee on Tuesday to provide an update on school reopening.

Broadly, legislators criticized the department for communication breakdowns and stressed the importance of improving students’ performance in reading and math.

“There has to be trust between you and this committee,” said Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, addressing Schwinn directly. “We have to know that, philosophically, we’re on the same page. There has to be cooperation between us, you, and Gov. (Bill) Lee. There’s a million kids who are depending on us to get this right.”

Cepicky outlined missteps the department made in the rollout of the Child Wellbeing Checks toolkit.

“I don’t ever want to be blindsided by something like this again, OK?” Cepicky said. “I’m just telling you, as representative of District 64. As we move forward, I’m constantly evaluating you.”

Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, asked Schwinn to focus efforts to improve student success in basic subjects such as reading and math.

“I would just like to see the Department of Education not become everything to our children,” Sexton said. “I’d like to see it focused on education. … The Department of Education should not be tasked with making sure that our children are fed, clothed and housed and looked after.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, asked the commissioner to address ongoing problems with the Achievement School District (ASD), which he said is performing worse than Shelby County Schools – the district in which many ASD schools are located.

“I can say this with certainty that there is not one single person in this room, or in your staff, that will send their child to an Achievement School District school, not even yourself,” Parkinson said. “And if we would not send our children to a state run school, why on God’s Earth do we sit here and justify achievement schools in our state to the citizens?”

Schwinn committed to working with the committee and other members of the Tennessee Legislature, and she outlined the continuing support the department would make for school districts and superintendents as the unprecedented school year continues.

Hours before the committee convened Tuesday, Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, released a statement urging his legislative colleagues to issue a vote of no confidence in the commissioner.

“I don’t know where to begin with respect to the reasons why out-of-state transplant Commissioner Schwinn should be replaced immediately. There are simply too many reasons to enumerate,” Griffey said in a statement, adding that if action is not taken by the committee this week, he intends to file a resolution of no-confidence at the beginning of the 2021 legislative session.

Griffey outlined concerns that included Schwinn’s handling of the state’s contract with ClassWallet, a funding management tool for the governor’s Education Savings Accounts program; high levels of attrition and loss of institutional knowledge within the department; the withdrawn Child Wellbeing Checks toolkit; delayed rollout of a school reopening plan; a lawsuit filed by former Chief of Schools Katherine Poulos; and the department’s focus on “whole-child” and “social and emotional learning” at the expense of growth in math and reading competency.

In response to Griffey’s call for a no-confidence vote, the department released the following statement:

“As a state, we are in unprecedented times and navigating all-new challenges presented by the pandemic that have real implications for the next generation and future leaders of Tennessee. Students, educators, schools, and districts need more support now than ever and the department is focused on delivering outcomes that meet the needs of students and school communities.”

Griffey is not the first state lawmaker to call for such a vote. Cepicky said last month if Schwinn’s testimony before the committee this week is unsatisfactory, he would call for a vote of no-confidence.

After the hearing, Cepicky said he would wait to see how Schwinn works to rebuild the department’s relationship with the Legislature over the coming months and reserve judgement until January.

Gov. Lee has continued to stand by Schwinn despite criticism from lawmakers and the public.

“Commissioner Schwinn is leading the department through an unprecedented crisis and the most challenging school year in the history of our state,” Gillum Ferguson, a spokesperson for the governor, told The Center Square on Tuesday. “We’re glad that Commissioner Schwinn is in this position at such a challenging moment because she is willing and capable to meet it.”

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