Image: Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, chair of the Tennessee Caucus of Black Legislators, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, chair of the House Democratic caucus, urge Gov. Bill Lee to replace the state education commissioner. Image Credit: John Partipilo
By Sam Stockard [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
House Democrats are urging Education Commissioner Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds to resign or for Gov. Bill Lee to replace her, saying she is statutorily unqualified to hold the post.
Reynolds, who replaced Penny Schwinn in July 2023, does not hold a teacher license even though a 100-plus-year-old state law requires the commissioner to be qualified to teach in the highest grade over which she has authority, which would be 12th grade. The same statute also says she “shall” be a “person of literary and scientific attainments and of skill and experience in school administration.” She is reportedly taking courses at UT-Martin to bolster her credentials.
Democrats contend Reynolds was brought in to push the governor’s charter and private-school voucher initiatives.
“It is imperative that given the state of public education across the state of Tennessee that we have the very best people and the most qualified people leading our public education, not people who are hired simply to undermine public education or destroy public schools,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons said.
At the very least, the person hired to be education commissioner should meet requirements of state law, Clemmons said.
Reynolds holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Southwestern University, worked in the U.S. Department of Education and in the Texas Education Agency before taking a post with ExcelinEd, a pro-charter and pro-private voucher organization.
Clemmons and Rep. Sam McKenzie, chairman of the black caucus, said Reynolds should resign immediately and, short of that, the governor should replace her.
The fact Reynolds is enrolled in an education program at UT-Martin shows she is making a “last-ditch effort” to become qualified, McKenzie said.
Reynolds suffered through a difficult meeting recently before the Senate Education Committee, in which she was unable to provide lawmakers with answers to several questions and depended on staff to handle difficult topics. But Clemmons and McKenzie said their reasoning is not focused on Reynolds’ shortcomings there.
Senate Republican and Democratic leaders told the Lookout they were comfortable she has a grasp of topics such as a new A-F grading system for schools and the movement of third-graders to fourth grade once based on reading test scores.
Reynolds also will be spearheading the governor’s “Education Freedom Scholarship” plan, which calls for giving $7,000 private-school vouchers to 20,000 students in the first year before the money to all students to enroll in private schools.
The governor’s office defended Reynolds last week, according to reports, saying her experience and credentials qualify her to hold the commissioner’s post.
Rep. Mark White, chairman of the House Education Administration Committee, said Monday he’s talked with Reynolds several times and found her to be “very competent” and a “good listener.”
“She’s appointed by the governor, not us, and I assume he vetted her pretty well. I would stand by the governor’s decision until something else comes up I don’t know about,” said White, an East Memphis Republican.
Considering the number of critical issues the Legislature is preparing to deal with in education, White said he believes it would be counterproductive to try to remove the department’s commissioner.
“I would think it’s political and a waste of time right now,” White said.
About the Author: Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam