I have some advice for Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Lizzette Gonzales-Reynolds. Please know that you will never be everyone's cup of tea. And that statement of fact is true for all of us.
However, everyone is worthy of respect. In an Age of Irreverence, it is worth remembering that simple truth. We are all created in the image of God. It doesn’t mean you have to accept others’ beliefs, or even agree with them. However, it is a good starting point for human interaction.
Penny Schwinn, who directed the Tennessee Department of Education for Tennessee (TDOE) told Governor Bill Lee recently that she is leaving her post. People and groups who lived outside of Tennessee were disappointed. People and groups that lived within Tennessee were pleased. Unless they were involved in K-12 education, most citizens probably did not even know her name.
Speaking to K-12 Dive magazine, I told the reporter: “There’s a huge disconnect between the legislature and her, and we are caught somewhere in the middle.” State Representative Scott Cepicky suggested, “Schwinn was more concerned with her own agenda and didn’t consult with those elected by the people of Tennessee.” State Representative John Ray Clemmons called “Schwinn’s departure a positive move for the state.” Then added, “No one has done more to harm our public schools and strategically undermine teachers than Penny Schwinn…”
The debate among politicos immediately turned to the old question in politics: “Was Schwinn pushed out or did she jump?” It depends on whom you ask. The Lee Administration took the high road and put out a short list of achievements for the exiting Commissioner. According to writer TC Weber, some in the Schwinn camp hint her departure was Governor Lee’s “lack of response to the Covenant shooting that sealed the deal for her to leave.” Whatever the real answer, the shelf life of political appointees is usually brief.
Every new beginning comes from the ending of something else. This is the case here. In the end, it is one more chance for the Lee Administration to right the ship at the TDOE. We don’t need to just “slap a coat of paint on it,” we need a shift in direction. We have needed that change for a long time. A new leader needs to look inward to rebuild and fill critical positions in the TDOE. Looking outward, the TDOE needs to reconnect with policymakers and stakeholders in Tennessee. Those are the immediate needs and steps for the new Commissioner.
We want the new Commissioner to succeed. Universally, it is understood state officials and employees, especially in the Governor’s Cabinet, need to limit out-of-state travel. Part of the job of a Commissioner of Education is to oversee the work of that department to maintain an effective organization.
There is a concern about growing reliance on outside vendors, over which citizens have little control. There is also a concern about a lack of skilled personnel inside the agency, which sometimes makes policymakers and stakeholders uncertain about who is responsible for the implementation of laws or policies established by the general assembly or the state board of education.
For Ms. Gonzales-Reynolds this is a new area overseeing a state government agency. She is coming to our state, without prerequisite experience in either public education or teaching.
As much as Gonzales-Reynolds may have a passion for Education Savings Accounts, the numbers will remain minuscule in comparison to the roughly one million children in public education.
The Commissioner must be visible to all stakeholders. The Commissioner needs to be accessible to the media, and not hide behind well-crafted public relations pieces. Leaders need to take the hard questions. And the Commissioner needs to be front and center at the Tennessee General Assembly.
In the end, if Lizzette Gonzales-Reynolds takes some of the recommendations seriously, we believe her tenure can be a success. If she continues the path started by Commissioner Schwinn pushing her own agenda, harming public schools, and strategically undermining teachers, her tenure will come to the same bitter end only quicker.
Our suggestion is to govern more like former Commissioners of Education Candice McQueen and Lana Seivers. She should sit down with both well-respected leaders. The bottom line is this: the next Commissioner of Education needs to spend actual time in Tennessee.
The Governor will soon enter lame-duck status and there will be a contested campaign for the next Governor. Lizzette Gonzales-Reynolds has a short window of opportunity to make a good first impression on the citizens of Tennessee. The ball is now in her court.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee