By KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College was in the lead earlier this year when he announced plans to launch 50 charter schools in Tennessee after Governor Bill Lee initially called for 100.
Six months later, that relationship went cold after Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn made derogatory comments about educators, telling an audience including Lee that teachers “are made in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges.” .
The comments inspired outrage from lawmakers, teachers and other public school advocates already skeptical of the plans. Now the Republican governor — long known as a charter school and voucher advocate — has distanced himself from Arnn, leaving the fate of charters tied to the small conservative college in doubt.
Since Arnn’s comments, three applications from charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale, Tennessee have been rejected by school boards in Jackson-Madison, Clarksville-Montgomery and Rutherford counties. A Hillsdale College spokesperson declined to comment on the rejected applications and did not respond to an interview request from Arnn.
It’s unclear when or if the promised 47 additional charter schools will ever materialize. No new legislation has been introduced or any formal action taken by the GOP-controlled legislature to oust Hillsdale, but the next legislative session does not begin until January.
Things could hardly be more different than when Lee touted Hillsdale-affiliated charters in a speech to the legislature earlier this year — an unusual shoutout for the private college. Hillsdale, Lee said in announcing a civics partnership with the school, “has been a standard bearer for a quality curriculum and responsibility to preserve American freedom.”
Arnn had recently led the “1776 Curriculum,” modeled after former President Donald Trump’s short-lived “1776 Commission,” in direct response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” focused on the history of slavery in America. . Program materials glorify the nation’s founders, downplay America’s role in slavery, and condemn the rise of progressive politics.
Although Hillsdale has long been well known in GOP circles — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz have given commencement speeches there — its significance has grown. is being reinforced among conservatives amid the national debate over the role schools should play in teaching about race and sexuality.
Beginning in 2010, Hillsdale began establishing charter schools—state-funded but privately operated—across the country. Hillsdale says it does not operate or manage the schools, but instead offers two types of support by licensing their program free of charge and providing training and other resources to so-called member schools. The program had over 20 member schools at the end of 2021 and over 30 schools using its curriculum, with major presences in Florida, Colorado and Michigan.
Nationally, charter schools frequently spark political tensions. During her tenure as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos championed the concept as an alternative to underperforming schools. Critics, often on the left, say they unfairly drain funding from traditional public schools.
Republicans have tapped into parents’ frustration with remote learning in traditional schools during the pandemic, clearing the way for them to rally around charter schools and other school choice initiatives. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia won the election last year after drawing inspiration from these themes, and the GOP plans to make them a central part of its midterm strategy this year.
It wasn’t until Lee approved as many Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools as possible coming to Tennessee in January that public doubts began to set in. This has since turned into anger at Lee among educators for not refuting Arnn’s claims.
“I am even more saddened and disappointed by our governor who sat there and did not stand up for our teachers,” said Sullivan County School Board member Mary Rouse, who was elected to the seat in an area strongly Republican, at a meeting earlier this month. . “Shame on you, Governor Lee. Shame on you.”
Republican Rep. Mark White, chairman of the state’s powerful House Education Commission, was equally blunt. He posted on social media that “any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been dashed” after Arnn’s remarks.
Prior to the June event where Arnn made the comments, his executive aide emailed Lee’s staff 11 questions he planned to ask the governor. They seemed simple enough: Who were his most important teachers, books, and subjects in school? How would he describe what he and Arnn were planning in Tennessee? None of them question the teachers or their training, according to the email the Associated Press obtained in a request for recording.
When asked last week if he still maintains an “unreserved embrace” of Hillsdale, Lee objected. He said he’s only spoken to Arnn “maybe five times” in the past two years.
Arnn also weighed in last week with an op-ed defending his commitment to teaching, saying he had made similar remarks throughout his career.
“Stupid can mean ‘unintelligent’, which I didn’t mean. Dumb also means ‘ill-conceived’ or ‘misdirected’, which unfortunately is an apt description for many schools of education today,” Arnn wrote.
Whether he helped himself was unclear. The governor, barely rallying to Arnn’s side, declined to say whether he would support the state’s Public Charter Schools Commission overturning local board rejections of Hillsdale’s charter school applications. The commission was created in 2019 and Lee hand-picked the nine members.
A commission spokesperson said the three Hillsdale affiliates have appealed their rejections.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee, and Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.
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