On July 4, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn participated in a closed-door reception with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee during which he made remarks denouncing public education. His statements prompted a response by faculty and students at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.
Hillsdale College is a four-year private university in Hillsdale, Michigan, that runs a national charter school affiliation program. It recently announced plans to open up to 50 similar, “classical charter schools” in Tennessee. While no grade range for these schools was stated, previous charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale have covered primary and secondary education. Three charter school applications affiliated with this initiative had been submitted to the state but have now been rejected.
The two-hour reception was not open to the public, but Arnn’s remarks were caught on a hidden camera. Arnn began by criticizing the training of public school teachers. He also inferred that public school educators are taught to change the personal beliefs of their students.
“The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said. “They are taught that they are going to go and do something that those kids… Do they ever talk about anything except what they are going to do that these kids?”
Arnn also spoke on the hiring practices of institutions of higher education, specifically regarding diversity, equity and inclusion educators.
“Because they [universities] are appointing all these diversity officers, what are their degrees in? Education,” Arnn said. “It’s easy. You don’t have to know anything.”
Arnn added that expertise is not required to educate a child. He stated that the purpose of his push for the expansion of charter schools was an attempt to prove that education does not require expertise. On the whole, Arnn compared education to a plague.
“You will see how education destroys generations of people,” Arnn said. “It’s devastating.”
Ivy Academy’s Skillern Elementarya charter school in Hamilton County, Tennessee, terminated its affiliation with Hillsdale on July 6. It had been provided with materials to shape its curriculum and a program guide, according to WBIR.
“In order to use our time tending to the mission of the school rather than defending ourselves from attempts to mischaracterize our efforts, we have terminated the agreement with Hillsdale that would have allowed us to use a program guide as a planning aid for our teachers, ” Angie Markum, Ivy Academy’s founder and CEO, said in a July 9 press release.
When pressed about his participation in the reception with Arnn, Lee refused to denounce Arnn’s statement. He instead criticized “left-wing activism” and its alleged presence in public education.
“I disagree with left-wing activism in public education, but I fully support the teachers in our state, a vast majority of them who are well trained and who are fully committed to serving the citizens of Tennessee,” Lee said at a July 6 press conference.
Peabody College responded to Arnn’s remarks via a statement sent to Peabody students and shared on social media on July 6.
“We stand in union with other Tennessee colleges and universities in rebuking recent public remarks made by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. The comments, which were disparaging to educators, are deeply disappointing and uninformed,” the statement reads. “At Vanderbilt, we believe that the value of teachers cannot be overstated. We are immensely proud of the important work our faculty does to educate future teachers and school leaders who go on to share the gift of education with others.”
Some faculty at Peabody College also expressed disappointment regarding Arnn’s remarks. Associate Dean of Peabody College Anita Wager said Lee’s response to Arnn’s comments was “appalling.”
“Arnn has his right to his opinion but the teachers in Tennessee deserve more from their governor than silence; not standing up for teachers and the teacher education programs in the state was an act of cowardice,” Wager said in an email to The Hustler.
Marcy Singer Gabella, a Peabody education professor, similarly told The Hustler that she is concerned about how Arnn’s comments reflect a larger trend regarding public education.
“The criticisms are old and have been invalidated. A vibrant system of public education is vital to a thriving democracy and the welfare of all in itGabella said. “Public schools should be places where young people learn to come together to think critically and honestly about the challenges we face in Tennessee, the nation and the world–and are prepared to take on those challenges.”
Wager added that public education plays a critical role in ensuring democracy.
“Without it we will lose the foundation of our democracy,” Wager said. “Students need to learn there are many sides to any issue; they need to learn how to winnow through various information they receive to make an informed decision; and they need to learn how they can act on their decisions.”
Leaders in Tennessee’s education systems, government organizations and teachers’ unions have also denounced Arnn’s statements. On July 8, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (COUGH) unanimously voted to refute Arnn’s remarks, citing six statements by Arnn during the two-hour reception.
“Unfortunately for Mr. Arnn, a public school critic, a public school education also confers the ability to listen, analyze, discern, and comprehend,” TOSS’s statement reads. “It is clear that the motive for Mr. Arnn’s criticism of public schools and public school teachers is driven by his desire to expand his charter school empire into Tennessee. And from all indications, he has the assistance he seeks in this endeavour.”
Mayowa Kassim, a sophomore and Nashville resident, also disapproved of Lee’s participation in the reception with Arnn. She further criticized Lee’s views on Tennessee public education as a whole.
“He doesn’t really care about the public, public school students or teachers, and he’s basically just willing to give money out to anyone, regardless of whatever they’re actually qualified for, to teach students,” Kassim said.
On April 18, Lee cosigned a letter to US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona alongside 17 other state governors to protest proposed changes to the US Department of Education’s Charter School Program. These changes raise the standards for charter schools to receive federal funding.
“The application of the proposed rule would only exacerbate inequities in our education system by reducing federal support for high-quality choices available to millions of low-income families.” the letter reads. “Charter schools are public schools, and many of the 3.5 million American students enrolled in charter schools are educated through the public education system in our states. Charter school leaders are essential partners in offering high-quality options that deliver outcomes for students and provide competition to lift academic achievement in nearby schools.”
Since he took office in January 2019, Lee has made a number of changes to the state’s education system. On May 2, he signed a new state education plan into law that increased per-pupil spending but also decreased the percentage of the state education budget that goes to two-thirds of Tennessee school districts. Metro Nashville Public Schools’ share of the state education budget will drop from 6.0151% in 2023 to 5.3399% in 2024.
Kassim said Arnn’s comments raise a bigger concern about funding and investment for public schools across Tennessee. She stated that a larger state investment in charter and private schools may be the cause of some flaws in Tennessee’s public education system.
“I think public education works, if you invest in it [it],” Kassim said.