The results don't have the same national implications as they did for Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, but add Dr. Larry Arnn's name to the list of prominent people whose careless words were costly.
Romney, the 2012 Republican Party nominee for president, dismissed nearly half the electorate when he told a crowd at a fundraiser that "47% who are with [President Barack Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. These are people who pay no income tax."
Clinton, the 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president, said at a fundraiser half of Republican nominee Donald Trump's supporters should be put into "what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that."
Both candidates, you might recall, lost their races.
Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, said in a joint appearance last month with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee that "teachers are trained in the dumbest part of the dumbest colleges in the country." He went on to call public education "enslavement," said teachers "feel entitled" to manipulate children and remarked that "education destroys generations of people. It's devastating. It's like the plague."
His words, according to state Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chairman of the House Education Administration Committee, "do not help us move forward."
We think, in fact, it may have set back education reform in the state at a time when the movement is gaining ground across the country after parents got a peek at what their children were learning when the coronavirus pandemic forced online classes in 2020 and 2021.
(Whether Arnn's words even had the merest ring of truth is hard to gauge. But a 2021 State of the States survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality indicates many states have lowered, or removed entirely, academic requirements for entry into teacher preparation; most states do not verify that elementary, early childhood or special education teacher candidates know the most effective methods to teach their future students how to read; only half of states require elementary teachers to pass a content licensure test that separately scores each content area; and the net effect on strengthening clinical practice for teachers is virtually unchanged since 2015.)
Lee and Arnn were together at an event in Franklin because the governor had announced in his January State of the State address that Hillsdale could open at least 50 "classical" charter schools in Tennessee affiliated with the small, Christian liberal arts college in Michigan.
White told this newspaper's Andy Sher that insulting educators is no way to build support for charter schools. Indeed, he wrote in a Facebook exchange with teachers over the weekend that he believes "any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been shattered."
"[M]y job," he told Sher, "is to move us forward in education reform, and you can't move forward when you lock out a whole group." Teachers, he said, are "the foundation of education. Without them, you don't have education going on."
White obviously doesn't speak for all members of the education committee or the House in general, but nine years as education chairman have given him a good idea of their feelings.
"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."
Although parents across the country — especially in high-poverty areas — are demanding charters, vouchers and alternatives to traditional public schools, the damage from Arnn is likely to make legislators gun-shy about larger proposals like the one with Hillsdale.
They were similarly gun-shy about a previous Lee attempt at providing education savings accounts, eventually whittling it to a program in only Davidson and Shelby counties and the Achievement School District. And although it was approved in 2019, it did not get the go-ahead until a ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court two months ago.
We also wish Lee had pushed back on Arnn's words at the time they were made. Although he said last week he'd put state teachers "up against any teachers in the country, the best and the brightest," and he told reporters Arnn's comments were made "about activism in education in this country," he could have used humor, shown mock insult or used any number of words to rebut the comments at the moment they were made. But he chose to remain silent.
We don't believe the governor feels any animosity for state teachers, and his budgetary investments in public education indicate just the opposite. But words like the Hillsdale president's are hurtful, no matter how or when or why they're said. And now they've likely damaged — at least in the short run — any progress that might be made in the state concerning education choice.