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Tennessee’s hug with a conservative Michigan college is spoiling


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College was on a high earlier this year when he announced plans to…

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College earlier this year announced plans to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee after Gov. Bill Lee initially asked for 100.

Six months later, that relationship cooled after Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn made disparaging comments about educators, telling an audience, including Lee, that educators “get their training in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges.”

The comments sparked outrage among lawmakers, teachers and other public school advocates who were already skeptical of the plans. Now the Republican governor — long known as a charter school and voucher advocate — has distanced himself from Arn, leaving the fate of charters tied to the small, conservative college in doubt.

After Arn’s comments, school boards in Jackson-Madison, Clarksville-Montgomery and Rutherford counties rejected three applications for Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools in Tennessee. A spokesman for Hillsdale College declined to comment on the rejected applications and did not respond to Arn’s request for an interview.

It is not known if and when the promised additional 47 charter schools will ever materialize. No new legislation has been introduced or the GOP-controlled Legislature has taken formal steps to remove Hillsdale, but the next legislative session doesn’t begin until January.

Things could hardly be more different than when Lee touted the Hillsdale-related charters in a speech to the Legislature earlier this year — an unusual shout-out for a private college. Hillsdale, Lee said in announcing the school’s civic education partnership, “has been a standard-bearer in terms of curriculum and responsibility for preserving American freedom.”

Arn 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 on the history of slavery in America. Curriculum materials glorify the nation’s founders, downplay America’s role in slavery, and decry the rise of progressive politics.

While Hillsdale has long been known in GOP circles — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have all spoken at the event — its prominence among conservatives has grown amid a national debate over the role that schools should play in teaching about race and sexuality.

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

Nationally, charter schools are often a source of political tension. During her tenure as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos championed the concept as an alternative to low-performing schools. Critics, often on the left, argue that they unfairly siphon funding from traditional public schools.

Republicans have capitalized on parents’ frustration with distance learning in traditional schools during the pandemic, giving them an opportunity to rally behind charter schools and other school choice initiatives. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia won election last year on these themes, and the GOP plans to make it a major part of its strategy in this year’s midterm elections.

It wasn’t until Lee endorsed bringing as many Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools to Tennessee as possible in January that the public began to have doubts. This has since turned into anger at Lee among the faculty for not refuting Arno’s claims.

“I’m even more upset and disappointed with our governor who sat there and didn’t protect our teachers,” Sullivan County School Board member Mary Rose, who was elected to the seat in the heavily Republican district, said at a meeting earlier this month. . “Shame on you Governor Lee. You should be ashamed.”

Republican Rep. Mark White, chairman of the state’s powerful House Education Committee, was just as scathing. After Arn’s comments, he wrote on social media that “any hope of Hillsdale working in Tennessee is destroyed.”

Before the June event at which Arnn made the comments, his executive assistant emailed Lee’s staff 11 questions he planned to ask the governor. They seemed simple enough: who were his main teachers, books and subjects at school? How would he describe what he and Arn were up to in Tennessee? None of them questioned the teachers or their training, according to an email obtained by The Associated Press in a records request.

Lee was asked last week if he was keeping Hillsdale “wholeheartedly”. He said he had only spoken to Arn five times in the past two years.

Arn also issued an editorial last week defending his dedication to teaching, saying he had made similar remarks throughout his career.

“Dumb can mean ‘unintelligent’ which is not what I meant. Dull also means ‘ill-conceived’ or ‘wrong,’ which is unfortunately an apt description for many of today’s educational schools,” Arn wrote.

Whether he helped himself was unclear. The governor, who has barely rallied to Arno’s side, declined to comment on whether he would support the state’s Public Charter School Commission in overturning the local boards’ denial of applications for the Hillsdale charter school. The commission was established in 2019, and Lee handpicked all nine members.

A commission spokesman says only one of the three Hillsdale branches has appealed the denial.


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

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or distributed.

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