Tennessee governor responds to outcry over Hillsdale charter leader’s criticism of teachers

A man in a suit and tie speaks into several microphones.
Gov. Bill Lee answers reporters’ questions about Michigan’s Hillsdale College at a Nashville event on July 6, 2021. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Praising teaching as both a profession and a calling, Gov. Bill Lee sought Wednesday to defuse the backlash that arose after a leaked video showed him sitting silently as a conservative education adviser mocked teachers, their training programs, and diversity officers.

But the Republican governor didn’t reject or disavow the recent remarks by his friend Larry Arnn, president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College, who said that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Lee also sidestepped questions about whether he would end any “partnership” between the state and Hillsdale, a small, conservative Christian school that Lee has invited to bring a hundred of its “classical charter schools” to Tennessee. 

“I fully support our public schools in this state and our teachers as well,” Lee told reporters, citing increased funding for teacher pay and public education every year since he took office in 2019.

The governor’s response came nearly a week after Nashville station WTVF released portions of a nearly two-hour video taken with a hidden camera at a private event hosted by Hillsdale in Franklin, south of Nashville.

During the June event, which Lee attended, Arnn compared modern education to “the plague,” and dismissed degrees earned by higher education diversity officers as “easy.”

Speaking of Hillsdale’s charter school work, Arnn said: “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.”

But Lee told reporters that Arnn was criticizing “the influence of left-leaning activists” in public education. “It wasn’t about Tennessee teachers or Tennessee schools,” the governor said.

At his annual state address in January, Lee lauded Hillsdale as a “standard bearer in quality curriculum” and said Tennessee was formalizing a partnership with the college based on its approach to civics education. Critics say Hillsdale’s 1776 charter school curriculum is rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism and glosses over or misrepresents uncomfortable history or progressive ideas.

In a radio interview Wednesday with conservative talk show host Matt Murphy, Lee said Arnn’s remarks about teachers and teacher training have been taken out of context and emphasized that they were not aimed at Tennessee educators.

“I’m not going to rebut someone who was speaking about left-wing problems in public education in this country that have actually hurt the genuine work of our teachers,” Lee said. “That’s why we in our state passed a law prohibiting critical race theory. That’s why we in our state passed a law that allowed parents to have access to what their kids have access to in a library.”

He added: “I will put our [Tennessee] teachers up against anyone in the country when it comes to their performance and their value.”

Leaders of Tennessee’s two major teacher organizations were disappointed, however, with Lee’s explanation, which comes amid a looming educator shortage.

“Gov. Lee missed a real opportunity to really separate himself from Mr. Arnn,” said JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, who has called Arnn’s remarks an “insult” to students who attend colleges of education and the professors who teach them.

Tanya Coats, president of the Tennessee Education Association, said Lee’s muted response showed that his loyalties lie with charter school operators.

“The video is clear. Gov. Lee allowed an out-of-state privatizer to stand on a stage in Tennessee and insult public school educators and teacher prep programs,” Coats said.

Lee, who is running for reelection, enjoys significant support in the polls. But since the TV report on June 30, he has faced swift and sharp criticism over Arnn’s remarks, from frequent critics as well as some political allies.

Hendrell Remus, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, called Lee’s reaction “a new low for the governor,” while fired-up educators across the state started a #ProudToTeach campaign on social media.

The Tennessee Charter School Center, a Lee ally that works to bring more high-quality charter schools to the state, said in a statement that it “categorically rejects” Arnn’s comments, while the head of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association called the remarks “incredibly disturbing.” 

The Tennessee State Board of Education, which works closely with teacher training programs to address teacher quality and supply, issued a statement after the news report and called the teaching profession “vital to the continued success of our state.”

Several legislative leaders in Lee’s own political party also voiced their displeasure with Arnn.

“He has insulted generations of teachers who have made a difference for countless students,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton tweeted on Wednesday, adding that he “will never agree with or support Mr. Arnn’s comments.”

State Rep. Jeremy Faison, chairman of the House Republican caucus, said most teachers enter education because of their commitment to children. “To argue that they are bottom of the barrel is wrong & ignorant. The guy from Hillsdale doesn’t speak for any Tennessean I know,” Faison said in a tweet.

State Sen. Ken Yager of Kingston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, agreed. “As a former classroom teacher, I have some idea of the challenges our public school teachers deal with on a daily basis,” he tweeted. “They do an outstanding job preparing our youth. I support them and say thank you.”

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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