Gov. Bill Lee's bid to add $1 billion to Tennessee's nearly $6 billion education budget sounds good on the surface. But what's under the surface is concerning. More than half of the added money will go toward some murky "additional education investments — like "informed patriotism" education in K-12 classes "and beyond."
Couple that with book banning — not just another passing phase. Lee previewed in his state of the state address a new bill introduced by two fellow Republicans aimed at purging books and other materials deemed "obscene or harmful to minors" from school libraries. It also will "ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries ... [and] create greater accountability at the local level so parents are empowered to make sure content is age-appropriate."
(Please note: We are talking about books like the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison, and of course one removed from the curriculum recently in McMinn County, "Maus, a Survivor's Tale," by comic artist Art Spiegelman about his parents' Holocaust experience. You know — kids have never heard the words, "damn and dammit." And apparently they've never seen a nude mouse in a bathtub.)
Add Lee's announced "formalization" of a partnership with Hillsdale College of Michigan, a school founded by Baptists and committed to preserving its "Christian identity" infused with intellectual, cultural and political conservatism.
Hillsdale doesn't just indoctrinate college students with Baptist-minded "informed patriotism."
It exports K-12 charter schools around the country — including one set to open in Tennessee's Williamson County in 2023 — as well as a curriculum of K-12 civics lessons called "The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum" complete with lesson plans for teachers.
The curriculum was specifically designed to depart from The New York Times' 1619 Project and to counter Critical Race Theory, Hillsdale officials told Newsweek last August. The college describes its curriculum as "a more patriotic approach to American history."
Hey, Gov: Can parents approve this at the local level for accountability, too? Like a library book?
And we should ask: Where is the separation of church and state here?
Take a moment to let all this sink in.
Last May, our state lawmakers passed a law barring Tennessee schools from teaching Critical Race Theory, also known as CRT. It's a law school curriculum that our schools don't teach, but the result nonetheless is that teachers are now afraid to fully engage with students in lessons about our state's and nation's racial and native American history. The law stipulates schools can lose funding if some student or parent charges that a teacher's answer to a probing question might be thought to stray into CRT.
Yet, our schools can and soon will teach Baptist-tinged, "informed patriotism" in history and civics classes?
Lee obliquely described these changes as "policies that reinforce freedom, innovation, exceptionalism and optimism."
It's not the only sleight of hand being dealt to our schools and our children's education.
Lee practically glowed with pride Monday as he pledged $6 million of the new education money to establish the "Institute of American Civics" at the University of Tennessee — another export of Hillsdale. Lee hailed it as a way "to expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education," but in Tennessee.
"Informed patriotism should stretch beyond K-12 and into higher education," he said. "In many states, colleges and universities have become centers of anti-American thought, leading students not only to be ill-equipped but confused. But in Tennessee there is no reason why our institutions of higher learning can't be an exceptional part of America at its best.
"This will be a flagship for the nation — a beacon celebrating intellectual diversity at our universities, and teaching how a responsible, civic-minded people strengthens our country and our communities," Lee added.
He supported his plan for this "informed patriotism" push by noting the Fordham Institute ranked Tennessee among the top five states for civics education.
And that's true: Fordham made note of many important lessons in the state's then-curriculum about our history's impact on African Americans and others. But Fordham's assessment was compiled for a report released in June 2021. Tennessee's assault on fully teaching history — the ban on CRT — was passed and signed by Lee just days before our state received Fordham's accolades. The ban went into effect on July 1.
Now more than ever we need to teach complete American history. And now more than ever we need to teach thoughtful and inclusive civics lessons.
Some of those words were even part of Lee's speech on Monday.
"Now more than ever, it's important we teach true American history, unbiased and nonpolitical," the governor said.
Would that he actually acted that way. But he doesn't, so we must beg to differ with him about what "true" is.
If "true American history" isn't complete, inclusive, thoughtful and devoid of any religious group's histrionics, then it will not be true — much less unbiased and nonpolitical.