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Tennessee governor under fire after charter leader lambasts public school teachers

by The Associated Press | July 6, 2022 at 3:09 p.m.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building in Nashville in this Jan. 31, 2022 file photo. (AP/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday refused to rebut recently revealed remarks made by a charter school president who claimed that public school teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges” during a reception the Republican attended.

Instead, Lee praised Tennessee’s educators and argued that the comments from Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn were criticizing “activism from the left.”

“Frankly, it really was a national conversation that wasn’t about Tennessee teachers from Tennessee schools as much it was about activism, in education in this country,” Lee told reporters. “And I agree that that is a concern.”

Lee has been on the defense after WTVF-TV published footage last week of Arnn and the governor at a private reception showing the Michigan-based conservative college president making disparaging remarks about public school teachers. Left-wing activism was not mentioned or discussed in the clips released by the news station.

“The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said to the crowd, who laughed in response.

Arnn also vowed to show that teachers “don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.” Lee later sat down with Arnn for a Q&A but the governor did not push back on what was said about teachers, the news station reported.

Education advocates, Democratic lawmakers and the state’s top two highest Republican legislative leaders have blasted Arnn’s characterizations of teachers and the education system.

“Larry Arnn’s comments are reprehensible and irresponsible. What was even more hurtful than Arnn’s comments is that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee sat there while educators, Colleges of Education, and public education were disparaged. Bill Lee’s silence spoke volumes,” J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee tweeted.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican from Oak Ridge, said Arnn’s comments were “ill-conceived, unfortunate and untrue,” while House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he would “never agree with or support Mr. Arnn’s comments. He has insulted generations of teachers who have made a difference for countless students.”

Both Republicans, however, stopped short of what many Democrats and education advocates have requested — that Lee denounce Arnn’s remarks.

Lee has repeatedly touted his friendship with Arnn, even referencing Hillsdale College in this year’s annual State of the State address by praising the school as being “the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.”

The name-drop came as Hillsdale announced plans to launch “classical charter schools” in Tennessee, with three applications already in the works across the state and a request from Lee to eventually open at least 100. Arnn has said he could open 50.

Meanwhile, Arnn has spearheaded the release of Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum — instructional material that focuses attention on the country’s founders while playing down America’s role in slavery. The curriculum, which is licensed to charter schools for free, also condemns the rise of progressive politics and argues that the civil-rights movement ran afoul of the “lofty ideals” espoused by the Founding Fathers.

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