Tennessee Gov. Lee vows support for teachers, won't renounce Hillsdale president's controversial remarks

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Gov. Bill Lee speaks in support of Republican Hamilton County mayor nominee Weston Wamp on Tuesday in Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday refused to repudiate remarks by a conservative ally who on a secretly recorded video said teachers are "trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges."

Michigan-based Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn made the comment last month at a private reception with the Republican governor and others.

Lee has come under fire from Tennessee teachers, independent teaching colleges and others.

"We believe in our teachers," Lee told reporters Wednesday. "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."

The governor nonetheless is not taking issue with comments made by Arnn, who derided public school educators and higher education teacher-training programs while also mocking diversity and inclusion efforts.

That came during an appearance Lee and Arnn made last month in Franklin, where the men sat beside each other and spoke to an unknown group. The event was secretly recorded and leaked to Nashville television station WTVF. Lee was silent as Arnn leveled his criticisms.

Lee sought to emphasize to reporters his belief that Arnn's comments were aimed at "activism on the left," and that he is in agreement with Arnn on that point.

"I do believe that the comments that you referenced was a conversation about the influence of left-leaning activists in the public education system in this state and this country, frankly," Lee said. "It really was a national conversation. It wasn't about Tennessee teachers or Tennessee schools as much as it was about activism in education in this country.

"And I agree that that is a concern," Lee said. "We've seen that across the country. So I disagree with activism on the left, but I fully support our public schools in this state and our teachers as well. And those are my comments, and others will have to interpret other comments."

Comments about "activism on the left" were not included in any of the video aired so far. The video shows the governor sitting silently beside Arnn as he makes a variety of disparaging remarks about education. Lee has asked Arnn to open 100 Hillsdale-affiliated K-12 "American Classical Schools" in Tennessee.

Earlier this year, Lee announced during his State of the State address that he has invited Arnn to open 100 of the charter schools in Tennessee. Its curriculum is based on the private conservative college's liberal arts curriculum, which centers on Western heritage as a product of Greco-Roman culture and Christian tradition. Arnn said he plans to open 50, and work is already underway on three schools.

Hakeem response

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat who sits on the House Education Administration Committee, said in a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview Wednesday that Lee's comments were seeking to redirect public attention from an attack on public school teachers.

"This 'left-leaning' piece is a diversion from dealing with the issue at hand - his support for teachers," Hakeem said of the governor. "And I think it's lacking when you, again, allow this to happen. It's like he's trying to find a way around it any way he can. He doesn't see anything wrong with what the man had to say.

"He allowed this man to degrade our teachers, and he doesn't think very much of them at all. You can't have it both ways," Hakeem said. "Either you support the teachers or you don't."

State House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, focused on Arnn's remarks.

"Having parents and grandparents as teachers, I know firsthand the dedication, the passion, and the abilities needed in the classroom," Sexton said on social media. "I will never agree with or support Mr. Arnn's comments."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga conservative website slaps 'RINO' label on two local lawmakers, other top state Republicans)

The Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association issued a statement calling Arnn's blistering critiques of teacher preparation programs both "uninformed and deeply offensive."

In contrast, there was silence fron Tennessee public universities with teacher programs. That didn't go unnoticed by state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat and retired teacher.

"The fact that TN's public universities are not calling out the derogatory comments from @GovBillLee is telling," Johnson tweeted. "It speaks to the retaliatory nature of [Lee's] administration. Folks know the mob boss will retaliate if you speak against the family. Bullies are the ultimate cowards."

1776 v. 1619?

Hillsdale offers its 1776 curriculum to schools free of charge. It was released last July by the small Christian college.

Arnn had led then-President Donald Trump's short-lived 1776 Commission, which Politico reported last year that Trump had pressed as a "patriotic" counter to the 1619 project.

The 1619 project examines the legacy of slavery since it came to America in that year, while highlighting contributions of Black Americans to American society.

Hillsdale College's nearly 2,400 pages of curriculum includes lessons on the founding of the U.S., the Civil War, civics education and American government. It focuses on American exceptionalism and the "centrality of the Western tradition," according to Hillsdale's website.

The Times Free Press reported last month that Skillern Elementary, set to open this fall in Hamilton County, uses a Hillsdale curriculum and is part of Hillsdale's network. Skillern, however, predates the governor's initiative and does not use the 1776 curriculum.

Skillern Elementary is to be a feeder school to Ivy Academy in Soddy-Daisy, an existing public charter school that serves grades six to 12.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.