Governor refuses to disavow Hillsdale president’s anti-teacher remarks

By: - July 6, 2022 5:42 pm
Gov. Bill Lee during a Wednesday media avaliablilty in Nashville. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee during a recent media availability in Nashville discussing Hillsdale College’s bid to open charter schools in Tennessee. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Despite statewide criticism, Gov. Bill Lee declined Wednesday to reject comments debasing teachers by the president of Michigan-based Hillsdale College, which the governor is inviting to start 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Speaking to Capitol Hill reporters for the first time in more than a week, the governor would not rebut the things his friend and advisor, Larry Arnn, said at a recent Hillsdale reception in Williamson County, casting them as statements about “left-wing” efforts to reshape the education system nationwide.

Lee maintained he has a “deep commitment” to the state’s public education and, as proof, pointed to a million-dollar funding increase for K-12 education in this year’s $52.8 billion budget. He also pointed out the Legislature has approved pay increases for teachers each year since he took office nearly four years ago.

“We believe in our teachers. I’ll put ’em up against any teachers in the country, the best and brightest, and we have taken actions to be supportive of them,” he said.

Lee claimed the comments made by Arnn were directed toward “left-leaning activists in this state and this country” but noted it was “really a national conversation.”

The governor has fielded heavy criticism since NewsChannel5 aired secretly-recorded video of Arnn speaking at the reception. At the event, Arnn made several remarks critical of teachers and their college education.

Here’s a key thing that we’re going to try to do. We are going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.

– Larry Arnn, president of conservative Hillsdale College. Arnn, who is working with Gov. Bill Lee to bring Hillsdale-sponsored charter schools to Tennessee.

For example, he said, “The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Arnn also said, “They are taught that they are going to go and do something to those kids … Do they ever talk about anything except what they are going to do to these kids?”

The Hillsdale college president continued, saying colleges are emphasizing the hiring of diversity officers as educators who hold education degrees.

“It’s easy. You don’t have to know anything,” he said.

In addition, Arnn said modern education is based on “enslavement” and that teachers “feel entitled” to manipulate children.

“You will see how education destroys generations of people. It’s devastating. It’s like the plague,” he said.

Giving a hint at Hillsdale’s view toward opening charters in Tennessee, Arnn said, “Here’s a key thing that we’re going to try to do. We are going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”

Lee, who unveiled his plans to bring Hillsdale-sponsored charters to Tennessee during his State of the State address, sat idly as Arnn spoke at the event, then made glowing statements about the college president and Hillsdale.

The governor tried to deflect criticism Wednesday, saying, “It wasn’t as much about Tennessee teachers and Tennessee schools as it was about activism in education in this country. And I agree that that is a concern, and we’ve seen that across the country.” 

He explained in a radio talk show this week that’s why he and the Legislature passed a measure to prohibit “critical race theory” in the classroom. The theory is an academic concept that racism is embedded in the nation’s legal systems and policies, including “red lining,” the creation of neighborhoods where Black homebuyers for decades were prohibited from obtaining loans to purchase property.

Arnn previously referred to minorities as “dark ones,” when discussing his college’s failure to have enough diversity, according to news reports.

Lee said he disagrees with “activism from the left” but noted he supports public education in the state and teachers. “Those are my comments, and others will have to interpret other comments,” he added.

Asked whether he’s concerned about Arnn’s comments considering the state has a teacher shortage of 2,500 and will need to recruit nationwide, Lee pointed out Tennessee set up the only federally-approved teacher apprentice program in the nation to attract strong students into the teaching profession.

Lee, who sat idly at a Williamson County reception while Hillsdale College’s Arnn made disparaging comments about teachers, told reporters on Wednesday only the he supports teachers.

Pressed about whether he regretted sitting silently as Arnn made the statements, Lee would only say that his comments about supporting teachers and students are clear.

While funding for K-12 education has increased annually since Lee became governor, he also passed legislation creating a charter authorizing commission that is now authorized to permit charter applications regardless of whether local school boards approve.

Lee pointed out the state has 21 charter organizations and more than 100 charter schools, all of them operating in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts. He noted whether they apply outside Davidson and Shelby counties would be up to the charter organizations.

Lee also passed legislation in 2019 setting up an education savings account program enabling low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts to use roughly $7,300 each in state funding to enroll in private schools. The matter was struck down by a Davidson County chancellor and State Court of Appeals as unconstitutional because it violated Tennessee’s Home Rule Amendment, which requires legislation directed at one or two counties to receive local approval.

The Tennessee Supreme Court this summer determined the law didn’t violate the Home Rule Amendment and remanded it back to the trial court to consider other questions.

Backlash to the report about Arnn’s comments and Lee’s lack of response were strong, although most Republicans stopped short of heavily criticizing the governor.

"Bill Lee missed the mark as usual," said Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, whose wife is a teacher. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“Bill Lee missed the mark as usual,” said Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, whose wife is a teacher. (Photo: John Partipilo)

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie pointed out Lee and Arnn have been telling people for years what they really think about teachers and public schools. The Nashville Democrat, whose wife is a teacher, also said he doesn’t believe teachers are buying Lee’s attempt to explain away Arnn’s words.

Dixie contends Lee is assuming every teacher is a Democrat, but notes if that were the case, he would never have won election.

“Bill Lee missed the mark as usual. How can we expect him really to have the best interest of every Tennessean in his heart if he’s gonna be hoodwinked and led by an out-of-stater who doesn’t really understand the climate in Tennessee or really doesn’t value other people who don’t look like him and have his background,” said Dixie.

The Nashville Democrat believes the governor is trying to “weaponize” the Bible to insert religion into public schools, which he considers the wrong route for education. Hillsdale College is an independent, Christian-based college.

Rep. Mark White, chairman of the House Education Administration Committee, said this week he would “push back” on the comments about teachers.

“Regardless of a personal opinion, we should never denigrate our hardworking teachers. That hurts. As Education chair, we have to depend on our teachers in the classroom because they are what every child needs,” said White, an East Memphis Republican.

He pointed out the most important part of education is a highly-qualified teacher in the classroom, which has become a legislative mantra over the last few years. Teachers have been challenged the last two years to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in which they had to prepare for online classes in many districts in addition to classroom lessons as students bounced in and out of school because of the disease.

Arnn’s statements are considered a detriment to the state’s efforts to recruit teachers. White, a former teacher, pointed out Tennessee wants to be able to attract strong students to the teaching field while keeping its experienced teachers in the fold.

The fact that Arnn and Hillsdale would be over a large number of charter schools applying to open schools in Tennessee has made his job harder, White acknowledged, because he is a school choice and charter supporter.

“I don’t want it to hurt our outlook on charters because there are a lot of good charters. But that rhetoric will not help the conversation,” White said.

J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, said his phone and social media was lit up with complaints from about 1,000 teachers, most of them conservative Republicans, last Friday morning after the NewsChannel5 report ran.

“They are furious and they are angry, and (Lee) just blames it on the left or whatever” Bowman said.

Bowman contended the governor should have stood up and defended Tennessee’s teachers of agreeing with Hillsdale’s vision for education, which the state is ready to buy into with 100 charters.

“Tennessee is a patriotic state. We’re known as the Volunteer State. I do not know why we feel like we’ve gotta go way out and recruit somebody from another state to come in here and tell us about patriotism,” Bowman said.

Colleges of education are only doing what they’re told to do with the Education Departments, he added, and the critical comments only hurt teacher recruiting efforts, Bowman added.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was disturbed, too, about Arnn’s statements toward teachers and education.

“To say it’s disappointing is beyond words. I don’t think this individual understands teachers and the commitment they make in Tennessee,” Lundberg said. “I have seen firsthand what our teachers go through every day, much less during COVID.”

Teachers are dedicated and intelligent and deal with myriad issues that parents don’t handle, the Bristol Republican added.

Lundberg, who considers himself “pro-charter school,” said he’s also concerned about Hillsdale trying to organize 50 to 100 charter schools in the state, especially if the president is taking a “sword” toward teachers.

The Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association also took exception to the comments by Arnn, calling them a “demeaning portrayal of teachers and educator prep programs.” Member colleges and universities graduate more than 2,000 new teachers for the state’s schools in 2020-21.

“Our member programs have been consistently ranked among the top educator preparation programs in the state and the nation,” said association president Claude Pressnell. “We’re proud of each of them and are truly grateful to all Tennessee teachers for their commitment to their students and our state.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.