Skillern Elementary terminates agreement with Hillsdale College after president's remarks on teachers

Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, speaks with students on campus in Hillsdale, Mich., Dec. 9, 2016. This private college of 1,400 students describes itself as "nonsectarian Christian" and dedicated to "civil and religious liberty" has come to play an active role in an ecosystem of conservative thought and policy. (Sean Proctor/The New York Times)

Skillern Elementary charter school, set to open in Hamilton County this fall, has terminated its agreement with Hillsdale College that would have allowed it to use the college's K-12 curriculum.

The announcement comes after a video leaked of Hillsdale President Larry Arnn making insulting comments about teachers and teacher-training programs at a reception where Gov. Bill Lee said nothing in their defense.

"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," Skillern CEO Angie Markum said in a news release.

In the video, Arnn can be heard saying teachers are "trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges," among other things.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported Wednesday that Lee refused to renounce Arnn's statements, although he promised to support teachers.

"We do not wish to participate in media frenzies, because the job of educating students is too important for us to give attention to anything else," Markum said in the news release. "We support our teachers and recognize that excellent teachers are ultimately the reason that any school succeeds."

Hillsdale officials confirmed in a news release the separation was effective Wednesday.

Emily Stack Davis, director of media and public relations at Hillsdale, said Arnn's remarks were taken out of context.

"Dr. Arnn was clearly criticizing the educational bureaucracy that has done a great disservice to both teachers and students by depriving them of the high-quality, content-rich education that makes for excellent teaching," Stack Davis said in an email.

"Dr. Arnn continues to hold the utmost respect and admiration for all those who choose to devote their lives to teaching. It is disappointing - though unsurprising - that entrenched elements of the education establishment would take criticism of their abysmal and damaging track record and deflect it towards the very teachers they've undermined for decades," she said.

Earlier this year, Lee announced plans to bring 50 new charter schools to Tennessee in partnership with Hillsdale, a Michigan-based Christian college. Skillern, which will open this fall with a classical, outdoor emphasis, adopted the curriculum in 2021 and was awarded a license to use Hillsdale's program.

"The Program Guide - developed over the course of several decades with the help of teachers, administrators and professors from across Hillsdale College and its affiliated schools - is a comprehensive curriculum scope and sequence for K-12 classical schools," the Hillsdale news release said.

But due to Hillsdale's religious affiliation and ties to the administration of former President Donald Trump, the curriculum and Lee's proposal came under fire.

The criticism was mainly aimed at Hillsdale's civics curriculum, dubbed the 1776 Hillsdale Curriculum.

The 2,425-page document is largely based on the former Trump administration's 1776 Report and references the report as recommended reading for teachers.

The report promotes patriotic education and outlines a pro-American curriculum, Trump said in a September 2021 speech at the White House. Arnn chaired the committee that created the report.

It was developed, Trump said, to combat "decades of left-wing indoctrination" in schools and to stop the teaching of critical race theory, "a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation." Trump also called critical race theory a "form of child abuse."

Several states, including Tennessee, have passed laws banning certain ideas stemming from critical race theory in K-12 classrooms, and the Hillsdale 1776 curriculum offers alternative ways to teach about race.

"This curriculum rejects many fashionable ways to make decisions about what students should learn. Such trends include basing what students learn on political ideology and activism; corporate interests for preferred kinds of consumers and workers; the interests of higher education, standardized testing and textbook corporations; and the color of one's skin," Hillsdale's 1776 curriculum states.

The Times Free Press reported last month Skillern had no plans to use the 1776 civics curriculum. Instead, it will use history and geography curricula from the Core Knowledge Foundation, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, to teach history, civics and social studies.

Skillern's founders said Hillsdale's curriculum is entirely secular.

The guide and licenses are provided to Hillsdale-affiliated schools free of cost and there is no fee to terminate the licensing agreement either, said Stack Davis, but the school must destroy or return the licensed work and cannot create any derivative materials.

"Hillsdale College and the entire K-12 Education Office wish the best to all the students, families, teachers and staff members at Skillern Elementary," the Hillsdale news release said.

Hillsdale had extended an invitation to Skillern to attend the college's annual summer teacher training, which features presentations on classical curriculum and pedagogy, building art and music programs, the teaching of Latin and dozens of other topics essential to building an excellent classical school, the Hillsdale news release said.

On Thursday, Justin Robertson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, sent out a letter to the community praising teachers for the hard work they do.

"Our teachers deserve our respect and support. In Hamilton County, we have more work to do in terms of valuing our teachers and elevating them as professionals," he said. "We are committed to improving compensation and culture within our system to better support our classroom leaders. We do not always get this right, but it is imperative that we continue to work towards a system that uplifts teachers and this profession."

The Times Free Press sent further questions about Skillern's decision in an email to Markum and attempted to reach her by phone but did not receive a response.

Skillern will serve as a feeder school for Ivy Academy in Soddy-Daisy, an existing public charter school that serves grades six through 12. When it debuts in August, it will enroll 64 kindergarten and first-grade students. The school plans to serve 408 students in grades K-5 by 2026.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.