Published July 7, 2021
The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn]
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s performance has many Tennesseans, from average citizens to school superintendents to legislators, calling for change. This call for a change at the top of Tennessee’s public education system is a long time in the making and continues today as we learned by surveying our readers.
When asked if they felt Commissioner Schwinn should resign, Tennessee Conservative readers overwhelmingly agreed – almost to a person – that Schwinn is not the right person for the job.
Citizen Larry Linton says, “She is bringing California values and curriculum to our state. As well, she is allowing Dr. Lisa Piercey to market the EUA vaccine to minors. Both of them need to go.”
Chattanooga resident James Emery says, “She does NOT represent the conservatives in Tennessee!”
“Without a doubt,” states citizen Margaret Twin. “We need someone who doesn’t believe in Critical Race Theory or anything else it might be called.”
Tullahoma resident Robert Chase Matheson wants to see changes that will keep public education from lurching from one extreme to another during future emergencies. “She should resign immediately,” Matheson stated. “And Tennessee needs more transparency between parents and the Department of Education to prevent this in the future.”
Why are so many Tennesseans calling for Penny Schwinn’s removal now? Understanding the full picture requires a review of recent events.
In September of 2020, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles called for the removal of Tennessee’s commissioner of education.
“Simply stated, she does not represent our values and has no business educating our children,” Ogles said. “I formally call on Governor Bill Lee to remove Commissioner Penny Schwinn.”
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Ogles’ request came just after Schwinn announced that the Department of Education was implementing a $1 million plan to conduct child well checks on all Tennessee children from birth to age 18 – even those not enrolled in public schools. This plan would include a phone call, email, or home visit from a program liaison. Critics of the plan called it a “government overreach”, with the checks including a review of each child’s vaccination records and documentation of any refusal from parents to participate in the “optional” program.
At the time, Schwinn claimed there was a miscommunication of the intention of the program.
“Although well intentioned, we have missed the mark on communication and providing clarity around our role in supporting at-risk students,” Schwinn stated.
Clarity again proved to be an issue for Schwinn later that month as she announced an expected drop of at least 50% in proficiency rates for Tennessee students because of COVID-19 disruptions in schooling. Questioning from school superintendents and lawmakers revealed that the data used to formulate that projection was from state data from 2014-2019, prior to the pandemic. Many school districts across the state had not yet received results from diagnostic tests administered at the start of the school year.
Superintendent of Henry County Schools Leah Watkins was among those who felt the Commissioner was misleading the public about the state of Tennessee schools. “Before the state releases numbers to millions of Tennesseans, let’s make sure it’s accurate and shared with the appropriate context,” Watkins stated.
Legislators were also blindsided by the announcement and Schwinn’s lack of communication, even though they had met with her the day before.
“We know there’s a loss of learning. But before making blanket statements, the state needs to ask superintendents for their data and then look at it closely,” said Representative Mark White of Memphis.
The rhetoric has continually been an issue for Schwinn, who seems quick to fall back on the excuse of miscommunication or misinterpretation when she comes under fire.
In August of 2020, the Department of Education issued guidance stating that they were “encouraging” that all middle and high school students and all staff members wear masks to return to school, but acknowledged that they were allowing school districts to decide on mask mandates themselves.
A statement from Schwinn’s office attempted to clarify the “intent” of the recommendation.
“The intent here is expectation and encouragement means the same thing, which is different from mandate and requirement. We know there are some schools who are requiring masks, but from the state’s prerogative it is not a requirement and it was not at any time a change in direction.”
More recently on Jul 1st, 2021, Schwinn has come under fire for a state-approved curriculum accused of promoting critical race theory even though a new Tennessee law limits what teachers can discuss regarding racism.
During a stop in Sumner County as a part of her summer bus tour, Schwinn was greeted by a group of protestors who argued that some components of the curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, were not appropriate for younger students.
Schwinn’s response was simply to say that the curriculum was chosen by the local officials and that parents just need to pay attention to what their children come home with. “As a parent, I read every book that is coming in front of my kids,” she said.
Citizen Sharee Andrade believes it is time for Schwinn to stop pushing her agenda on Tennessee children. “She is pushing failed curriculum in TN schools. She is also heavily promoting curriculum that isn’t age appropriate, stuffing in gender identity and Critical Race Theory,” stated Andrade.
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