Amid Criticism, Tennessee Education Commissioner To Address House Committee

The Center Square [By Vivian Jones]-

Image courtesy of Education and Labor Committee livestream.

Amid criticism from lawmakers and the public, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn will appear before legislators for the first time since March on Tuesday to provide an update and take questions.

Tennessee’s House Education Committee will meet for summer study Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss school reopening, teacher evaluations, broadband access and allowing collegiate student-athletes to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness.

“With the issues, whether it be the child well-being or other issues that are out there, we’ll let the members ask in a respectful conversation, and get to a better understanding,” committee Chairperson Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said.

Schwinn has come under fire in recent weeks over the department’s reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools and accusations of government overreach in the department’s Child Wellbeing Checks toolkit. Schwinn received criticism earlier this year from legislators on her management of a no-bid contract with provider ClassWallet to facilitate Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account program.

“Concerns with no-bid contracts that we’re seeing, that she also had a problem with in Texas,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville. “I just saw that the governor fully supports her. Well, you know, the governor also has his own issue with no-bid contracts.”

Schwinn faced intense questioning from lawmakers in the spring over changes to the state’s list of textbook standards. The department also has seen substantial employee turnover and restructuring since Schwinn came aboard.

“I just have a lot of questions,” Johnson said. “I’m just seeing a lot of disorganization in that department. It seems very chaotic.”

Also on the docket for the summer study meeting, members will hear from seven school superintendents from across the state on school reopenings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our main goal is to learn from the superintendents,” White said. “What are your challenges? What is working? What is not working?”

White plans to seek out issues the Tennessee Legislature could address during its session next year to help the school year continue more smoothly, including broadband coverage.

“We’ve gone virtual, but much of our state does not have complete broadband coverage,” White said. “This whole week, I’ve been up in northeast Tennessee, where they’re mainly back to school, some in a hybrid plan, but broadband coverage is not accessible in all those areas. It’s the same way in west Tennessee.”

Committee Vice Chairperson Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, said he looks forward to discussing how to stabilize the process of teacher evaluations and how to address the negative effect of pandemic-related school closures on students.

“I want to hear what is and isn’t working so far with the school reopenings from those who are experiencing it directly – our directors of schools that will be in attendance,” Haston said.

The committee will convene at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

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