Education chair says Hillsdale College's charter plans for Tennessee 'shattered' by insulting teachers

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee Chairman Mark White attended an education funding event at Ooltewah High School on June 6, 2022.

NASHVILLE - The chairman of a powerful Tennessee House education panel says "any hope" that Hillsdale College will be operating charter schools here with state funding has "been shattered" among his colleagues as a result of the college president, Larry Arnn, making denigrating comments about public school teachers last month.

"I believe you do not find solutions to issues by tearing down what you consider your opposition, which is what the Hillsdale president did," House Education Administration Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, wrote during a series of Facebook exchanges with teachers and others on Sunday. "When the General Assembly convenes again next January, any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been shattered. 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."

The chairman added, "This applies to any and all groups that denigrate others to advance their own cause."

At Gov. Bill Lee's invitation, Arnn had planned to open at least 50 "classical" charter schools in Tennessee affiliated with Hillsdale. The initiative has been a signature effort by the governor, who announced it during his State of the State address in January.

Arnn made the controversial remarks at a joint June appearance in Franklin with Lee before an unidentified group. The conversation was recorded on video and leaked to Nashville television station WTVF.

"The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country," Arnn said.

He went on to say colleges are emphasizing the hiring of diversity officers as educators who hold education degrees.

"It's easy," he said. "You don't have to know anything."

In addition, Arnn said public education is "enslavement" and that teachers "feel entitled" to manipulate children.

"You will see how education destroys generations of people," he said. "It's devastating. It's like the plague."

Lee offered no pushback, at the speaking event or later, infuriating educators, universities, both the Tennessee Education Association and the Professional Educators of Tennessee. Arnn's comments drew sharp criticisms from both state House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker.

The governor's office had no immediate comment on White's remarks.

JC Bowman, chairman of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, lauded the chairman's comments Monday in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"Chairman White is a serious man, who values public education," Bowman said. "He understands that 90% of Tennessee children will be educated in public schools. In the decade I have known him, he has always kept his word: If he says Hillsdale will not be part of the solution here in Tennessee, I would take that message to heart. As chairman, his influence is significant."

Lee's communications staff had no immediate comment on Monday.

One of the people involved in the Facebook conversation with White was Cathy Presnell, an instructional coach at a Murfreesboro elementary school who is a former director of education engagement at the Tennessee Department of Education as well a one-time director of literacy at the Tennessee Early Literacy Network. She thanked White at the time for his comments.

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman!!" she posted. "This is exactly the kind of leadership we need and appreciate all you've done for education in Tennessee through the years - and especially now."

Last week, Lee refused to repudiate Arnn's remarks.

"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 did not criticize Arnn, who in addition to deriding public school educators and higher education teacher-training programs also mocked diversity and inclusion efforts.

Lee told reporters that his belief was 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."

Arnn did not mention anything about "activism on the left" on the video.

A Hillsdale College spokesperson later made no mention of left-wing activism, telling The Tennessean that "those who heard the conversation in its entirety understood that Dr. Arnn was criticizing the educational bureaucracies that have done teachers and students a great disservice by depriving them of a quality, content-rich education that makes for excellent teaching,"

During a Monday phone interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, White said comments like Arnn's "do not help move us forward."

"And my job is to move us forward in education reform, and you can't move forward when you lock out a whole group," White added, calling teachers "the foundation of education. Without them, you don't have education going on."

White said his remarks stemmed from knowing his colleagues pretty well after serving nine years as an education committee chairman.

"I know what their positions are," he said. "That was where my comment came from. I know how our members think, and you know, when you sit in committee and you have a piece of legislation that may come before you, it's dead in the water if you have issues like this.

"That was kind of where I was coming from," White added. "It's just that any hope that there may be for anything like that is gone."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.