The right-wing assault on public education has seemed nearly unstoppable over the past few years. But in Tennessee, the governor has discovered a limit.
The pushback on one of his plans—to sprinkle charter schools throughout the state that will combat “leftist academics”—has sparked such an uproar over the past few weeks that it may redirect or even halt a major expansion of conservative schooling.
For months, Gov. Bill Lee, a “Christian-values” Republican, had been working on a deal with a tiny Christian college in Michigan, called Hillsdale, to bring a new K–12 curriculum into Tennessee.
But on June 30, a Nashville television station, WTVF, reported that the president of Hillsdale, Larry Arnn, had mocked and belittled public school teachers during a private reception as a way to assure guests that public education was a failed institution. Teachers, he said, were “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
These comments were captured in a secret recording at an event held in Franklin, Tennessee. As Arnn waved off concerns about finding qualified teachers for his new schools—“you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it”—and spouted off other offensive assumptions, Gov. Lee sat by quietly.
The outrage was heated and immediate. The Tennessean’s editorial board called on Lee, who during the recording repeatedly referenced his friendship with Arnn, to denounce the remarks. Several school boards in Tennessee passed resolutions either pointedly supporting teachers or fully condemning Arnn or Lee. The Tennessee Association of Secondary School Principals said in a statement that Arnn should be “blackballed from having an impact on the system.” The Tennessee Education Association said Lee’s failure to stand up for teachers was “like a punch to the gut.” And obviously, the hardworking teachers of Tennessee were none too pleased.
At the state government level, it wasn’t just Democrats rebuking Arnn. House Speaker Cameron Sexton told the Tennessean that Arnn “insulted generations of teachers who have made a difference for countless students.” Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally issued a statement that called the comments “ill-conceived, unfortunate, and untrue.”
The chairman of the Tennessee House Republican Caucus, state Rep. Jeremy Faison, called the comments “ignorant” and wrote on Twitter: “The guy from Hillsdale doesn’t speak for any Tennessean I know.”
There was also immediate practical fallout. One elementary school, on the verge of opening in the fall with a Hillsdale College curriculum, said it was severing its ties with the organization, so as not “to participate in media frenzies.” In other cases, school boards rejected applications from Hillsdale-affiliated programs.
Even though the comments were obviously insulting, the sudden anger of the Tennessee public came as something of a surprise.
Teachers around the country have been at the receiving end of some of the worst political vitriol of the past few years, as they are often implicated in right-wing moral panics (see: “groomer” controversies and hysteria over “critical race theory”) and have faced an onslaught of criticism, harassment, and scapegoating for what they have—and have not—been able to do for children during COVID.
Plus, until this moment, Hillsdale’s plans for an education takeover in the state had been a major source of pride for Tennessee’s governor. In his State of the State speech earlier this year, Lee said that Arnn planned to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee. The governor did not make it a secret that he wanted twice as many.
The push to get Hillsdale’s influence in schools was an anti-liberal education campaign from the start, but, again, that wasn’t a secret. Hillsdale College, which accepts no federal funding in order to avoid Title IX regulations, has expanded, in recent years, into something of a training ground and network for Trumpian Republicans. Despite its tiny student body population of 1,500, Hillsdale has had a surprising amount of influence in Washington, especially with the Trump administration. Clarence Thomas once called it a “shining city on a hill” during a 2016 commencement address.
In recent years, one of its greatest efforts has been focused on establishing affiliated K–12 charter schools to push a “1776 curriculum” designed to thwart “leftists”—schooling that describes the policy outcomes of the civil rights movement as “counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders.”
Some red state governors have welcomed the influence.
In Florida, where Hillsdale has established seven public charter schools, several reviewers who flagged math textbooks as promoting “critical race theory” were affiliated with Hillsdale. The school also helped revise the civics standards for the state, and the Florida Department of Education has offered $3,000 bonuses to teachers who take a Hillsdale training that reportedly focused on the need for Christianity in society.
Overall, the college claims to have 23 K–12 affiliate schools around the country and another 41 that use its curriculum. It also says more than a dozen other “member schools” are currently in the works.
But in Tennessee, the tide turned abruptly on Hillsdale’s efforts. “When the General Assembly convenes again next January, any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been shattered,” Mark White, a Republican and the House Education Administration chairman, wrote on Facebook on July 10. (He stood by the comments in a later interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.) “I will continue to work to find solutions to improve Tennessee’s public education system and protect our students, but Hillsdale, by Dr. Arnn’s comments, will not be a part of that solution.”
Other Republicans echoed White’s comments. Sexton, the House speaker, told WTVF the legislature would also be examining a loophole that allowed the governor to approve supplemental materials without legislative oversight—a loophole that would have allowed Lee to approve the 1776 curriculum on his own.
Lee, for his part, has declined to criticize Arnn. “We believe in our teachers,” he told reporters on July 6. “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.” But he insisted that Arnn had been criticizing “the influence of left-leaning activists in the public education system,” and he stood by that.
There are signs the scandal, which started with an insult to teachers, has shifted to deal with some of the actual culture war matters at play. A spokesman for McNally, the Republican lieutenant governor, put out a statement in response to WTVF saying he “obviously” supported the Civil Rights Act.
But the bigger questions remains: Why, at such a tough time for teachers and public education more generally, did these leaked comments in Tennessee change the trajectory of the state’s education policies?
According to several professors who study politics and education, Arnn made a crucial mistake: He made his education complaints personal.
Americans, studies show, love their teachers and their local schools. They may gripe about public education as an abstract concept, and they may direct their frustrations toward state-level administrators, but they don’t like dumping on teachers.
“Attacking school teachers—that doesn’t go down well,” said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “Hillsdale may have some rhetorical appeal with certain constituencies, but this is not consistent with the public’s views. They want to support our teachers.”
Arnn may have gotten so caught up in national-level culture wars that he forgot that on a local level, people don’t envision the boogeymen of Libs of TikTok when they think of teachers; they think of neighbors and friends. “The mistake Hillsdale made is assuming that ‘teachers’ fit this preconception of a liberal union member,” said Kent Syler, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. “I would venture to say that the majority of Tennessee teachers are Republicans.”
The situation was made worse by Lee’s handling of the backlash. He was basically silent about it.
In an op-ed published by the Tennessean on July 18, Arnn tried to do the damage control Lee wouldn’t. “Dumb can mean ‘unintelligent,’ which I did not mean,” he wrote. “Dumb also means ‘ill-conceived’ or ‘misdirected,’ which is, sadly, a fitting description for many education schools today.” He blamed the backlash on interest groups opposed to “parental rights” and blasted the “education bureaucracy” for fighting “partisan ideological battles.”
It didn’t seem to work. Last Wednesday, following a week in which three separate school board votes denied applications from Hillsdale schools, Lee distanced himself from Arnn, saying he met the Hillsdale president “maybe five times” in the last two years. He also said the Hillsdale partnership was not definitively his “vision” for Tennessee. His vision, he said, was “the opportunity to have the best public school system in the country.”