Tennessee's embrace of conservative Michigan college sours

FILE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office in War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. After riding high on a promise to bring 50 charter schools to Tennessee, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn's budding relationship with Gov. Lee has significantly cooled over the past several months. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File) (Mark Humphrey, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The president of Michigan's Hillsdale College was riding high earlier this year when he announced plans to launch 50 charter schools in Tennessee after Gov. Bill Lee originally asked for 100.

Six months later, that relationship has cooled after Hillsdale's Larry Arnn made disparaging comments about educators, telling an audience including Lee that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges.”

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The comments inspired outrage among 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 connected to the small, conservative college in doubt.

Since Arnn's comments, three Hillsdale-affiliated charter school applications in Tennessee have been rejected by school boards in Jackson-Madison, Clarksville-Montgomery and Rutherford counties. A spokesperson for Hillsdale College declined to comment on the rejected applications and did not respond to a request to interview Arnn.

It's unknown when or if the additional 47 charter schools promised will ever materialize. No new legislation has been filed or formal steps taken by the GOP-controlled legislature to oust Hillsdale, but the next legislative session doesn’t start until January.

Things could hardly be more different from when Lee touted Hillsdale-affiliated charters in a speech to the legislature early this year — an unusual shoutout for the private college. Hillsdale, Lee said in announcing a civics education partnership with the school, “has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.”

Arnn had recently spearheaded the “1776 Curriculum,” which was inspired by former President Donald Trump’s short-lived “1776 Commission,” as a direct response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” focusing on America’s history of slavery. The curriculum's 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 inside GOP circles — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have given commencement speeches there — its prominence has strengthened among conservatives amid the national debate over the role schools should play in teaching race and sexuality.

Starting in 2010, Hillsdale began setting up charter schools — publicly funded but privately run — across the country. Hillsdale says it does not operate or manage schools, but instead offers two types of support by licensing their curriculum for free and providing training and other resources to so-called member schools. The program had more than 20 member schools by the end of 2021 and more than 30 schools using its curriculum, with major presences in Florida, Colorado and Michigan.

Nationally, charter schools frequently stir political tensions. During her tenure as education secretary, Betsy DeVos championed the concept as an alternative to low-performing schools. Critics, often on the left, argue they unfairly drain funding from traditional public schools.

Republicans have tapped into parents’ frustration with remote learning at traditional schools during the pandemic, giving them a path to rally behind charter schools and other school choice initiatives. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Virginia won election last year after drawing on those themes, and the GOP plans to make it a core part of their strategy in this year’s midterms.

It wasn’t until Lee endorsed bringing as many Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools as possible to Tennessee in January that public doubts began to take hold. That has since morphed into anger at Lee among educators for not refuting Arnn’s claims.

“I’m even more saddened and disappointed in our governor who sat there and did not defend our teachers,” Sullivan County school board member Mary Rouse, who was elected to the seat in a heavily Republican region, said at a meeting earlier this month. “Shame on you, Gov. 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 shattered" after Arnn's remarks.

Before the June event where Arnn made the comments, his executive assistant emailed Lee’s staff 11 questions he planned to ask the governor. They looked straightforward enough: Who were his most important teachers, books and subjects at school? How would he describe what he and Arnn were planning in Tennessee? None of them casts doubt on teachers or their training, according to the email The Associated Press obtained in a records request.

Asked last week if he still maintained a “whole-hearted embrace” of Hillsdale, Lee demurred. He said he’d only talked to Arnn “maybe five times” in the past two years.

Arnn also weighed in last week with an editorial defending his commitment to teaching, saying he's made similar remarks throughout his career.

“Dumb can mean ‘unintelligent,’ which I did not mean. Dumb also means ‘ill-conceived’ or ‘misdirected,’ which is, sadly, a fitting description for many education schools today,” Arnn wrote.

Whether he helped himself was unclear. The governor, hardly rallying to Arnn's side, declined to comment on whether he would support the state’s Public Charter School Commission overturning the local boards' rejections of Hillsdale’s charter school applications. The commission was created in 2019 and Lee has hand-selected all nine members.

A spokesperson for the commission says all three Hillsdale affiliates have filed to appeal their rejections.


Associated Press writers Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee, and Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.

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