Hamilton County school board to take up resolution condemning Hillsdale College President Arnn's critical comments of teachers

Staff photo / School board members Rhonda Thurman, left, Tucker McClendon and Karitsa Jones listen at a March 3, 2020, meeting.
Staff photo / School board members Rhonda Thurman, left, Tucker McClendon and Karitsa Jones listen at a March 3, 2020, meeting.

NASHVILLE - Hamilton County school board members are poised to take up a resolution Thursday that condemns conservative Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn for his statements before a Tennessee group last month disparaging public school teachers while also condemning Gov. Bill Lee's "failure" to criticize Arnn while attending the same closed-door event.

The resolution also asks local state senators and legislators to condemn the comments made last month by Arnn at a meeting of charter school supporters in Franklin as Lee sat beside him. Arnn said in the secretly taped video that teachers come from "the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges" and that "no expertise is required to teach" because "anybody can do it."

If the Hamilton County resolution is approved, the local school board would become at least the fourth board to criticize Arnn, who at Lee's invitation plans to open at least 50 of his "American Classical" charter schools in Tennessee.

As drafted, the Hamilton County resolution has another provision that specifically calls out Lee for his refusal to push back on Arnn's comments. The resolution also asks the two state senators and five state House members from Hamilton County to "denounce" Arnn's remarks.

Hamilton County school board member Tucker McClendon, a resolution proponent, said in a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview last week that "comments like that do no good for any profession but particularly people that give their lives to service to make the next generation all that it can be. And to belittle their education, to belittle their profession is just outrageous. I'll be the first to admit I could not be a teacher. It takes a special person.

"Anyone who would disparage, discourage, teachers is someone who doesn't need to be around politics in this state, in this county. And I would hope that our public officials would speak up against it. I would hope that our elected officials would step up against it," added McClendon, a Republican whose wife is a teacher.

"I just can't sit idly by while we have someone who possibly is coming into our state with curriculum and charter schools that believes that," McClendon continued. "It's just not right. And for our governor, I think he's in a hard place, but not to even come out and say he supports our teachers and that the remarks were disparaging really hasn't set all that well with me. Some things are bigger than politics."

In a Times Free Press phone interview earlier this month, state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a member of the House Education Administration Committee, condemned Arnn's statements, which were first revealed by Nashville television station WTVF. He also said Lee's silence "sinks whatever credibility there was to an all-time low."

After the controversy publicly erupted, Lee, a Republican who is up for re-election this year and some see as harboring national political aspirations, stated his position to reporters.

"I disagree with left-wing activism in public education," Lee said. "But I fully support the teachers in our state, a vast majority of them who are well trained and who are fully committed to serve the citizens of Tennessee."

Arnn had made no mention about "left-wing activism in public education" in the videotape.

Criticisms of Arrn's remarks about teachers have drawn criticisms from Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, as well as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge.

House Education Administration Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, has said any "hope" of Hillsdale College opening up its charter schools in Tennessee has been "shattered" by his comments.

Skillern Elementary charter school in Hamilton County has terminated its agreement with Michigan-based Hillsdale in the wake of the controversy.

Boards representing the Sullivan County, Wilson County and Jackson-Madison school systems have weighed in critically on Arnn's remarks. Wilson County school board members also were critical of Lee's silence. City of Collierville school board members approved a resolution in support of teachers.

Here is a copy of the Hamilton County school board resolution on Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee that is expected to be considered Thursday:

Whereas this Board of Education condemns the statements by Mr. Larry Arnn and affirms our belief and support in our teachers as professionals, whose work requires specialized education, knowledge and skills, and attention to the many needs of our students in order to be successful. We further condemn the failure of Governor Lee to rebuke Mr. Arnn for his comments and request the elected state representatives and state senators from Hamilton County also to denounce his remarks. So therefore, The Hamilton County Board of Education formally offers this statement of support and appreciation for the dedicated professional educators. They work tirelessly every day in providing exemplary instruction, support, and related services to the students in our district.

While Hakeem has voiced his views, other members of the Hamilton County legislative delegation had yet to weigh in on Arnn's remarks as well as Lee's refusal to criticize them and the county school board's resolution asking legislators to state their position on the criticisms made about teachers and their training.

"I am on the record in committee meetings and public venues saying that teachers are the most important component in the educational process," House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said in a text to the Times Free Press. "We can have the best facilities and the latest technology, but if we don't have a good teacher in the classroom, our students will not achieve their potential. The data has proven that time and again.

"I can speak from personal experience that not just anyone can teach," stated Hazlewood, who was trained as a teacher and taught briefly before embarking on a business career. "It is a difficult profession that requires commitment, training and incredible patience. I thought I had the first; I completed the second; but I was was very short on the third. That was one of several reasons my teaching career was extremely short-lived.

"I know that teaching is a calling as much as a profession and that teachers are to be appreciated and supported, not denigrated," Hazlewood said, citing her own experience as well as results she's seen when watching an "outstanding teacher" at work in the classroom.

"The highly publicized comments from an out-of-state educator claiming, among other things, that 'anyone can do it' are just plain wrong," Hazlewood added.

Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, and Rep. Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, also disapproved of Arnn's comments.

"I condemn his comments. Being a teacher is a noble profession of great value that shapes the future for our young people," Helton said in a text to the Times Free Press.

"I appreciate first hand the important role teachers have played in my life. Teachers are as important as law enforcement to protecting and growing the minds of children," Vital said in a text to the Times Free Press,

"Disrespect of teachers and their education by anyone is inappropriate," he added. "Thank you, to all the teachers in public and private schools who have dedicated their lives to serving our children in so many ways!

"It's time for parents to help teachers raise the reading and competency scores of students and justify the huge financial investment Tennessee is making in education!" Vital said.

Sens. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, as well as Rep. Greg Martin, R-Hixson, did not respond to the text seeking comment.

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

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