A History of Hillsdale in Tennessee
It all started in January of 2022
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In January of 2022, Tennesseans were introduced to the idea that Gov. Bill Lee was making plans to turn public schools in the state over to the care of a small, private, Christian college in Michigan.
Lee made the announcement about an agreement to grant 50 charter schools to Hillsdale in his State of the State address.
Gov. Bill Lee made clear in his State of the State that he is a proponent of an alternative history known as “American exceptionalism.”
This theory is grounded in a sort of American evangelicalism – and certainly has strong ties to far-right Christian movements. To advance his “exceptionalism agenda” Lee has announced a partnership with conservative Hillsdale College – a private, Christian school in Michigan. Yes, Tennessee is such a great example of exceptionalism that we have to turn to a private college from Michigan to “properly” teach history.
Here’s a note on that from Lee’s speech:
Two years ago, I traveled to Hillsdale College to participate in a Presidents Day celebration and spend time with champions of American exceptionalism.
For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.
I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee, and we are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education.
WPLN reports that public education advocates are raising concerns about the transfer of Tennessee tax dollars to a private, religious institution:
Lee has made a deal with a conservative college to open about 50 charter schools in the state.
Lee has made a deal with Hillsdale College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, to bring their civic education and K-12 curriculum to Tennessee.
Beth Brown, the [Tennessee Education] association’s president, says there is no need to bring in outsiders to implement a new curriculum or to set aside $32 million for new charter schools, a key element in the proposal.
“The concern is that we’re taking taxpayer dollars and we’re going to take those taxpayer dollars away from our public schools and give them to private entities,” said Brown.
At that point, it wasn’t exactly clear where all these charter schools would be opening. As it turns out, Hillsdale and Lee had designs on suburban districts. Hillsdale made applications in Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford counties.
The likely local fiscal impact in year one of those charters was estimated to be between $2 million and $3 million.
All seemed to be going well until a tape of Hillsdale President Larry Arnn was leaked. In that tape, Arnn was sitting next to Lee and made disparaging remarks about teachers and colleges of education.
His comments - and Lee’s silence in the face of a blatant attack on Tennessee teachers - caused quite a stir.
Here’s a full statement from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents on the Arnn fiasco:
The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents Board of Directors met on July 7, 2022 and voted unanimously to provide this public statement refuting the disparaging statements about public educators made by the President of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn in Franklin, Tennessee released late last week. Tennessee Superintendents/Directors recognize the profound value of Tennessee teachers and celebrate their indispensable role in creating a brighter future for Tennesseans.
The following statements made by Mr. Arnn demonstrate the disdain he obviously holds for Tennessee educators.
“The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
“They are taught that they are going to go and do something to these kids.”
“Do they ever talk about anything except what they are going to do to these kids?”
“You will see how education destroys generations of people. It’s devastating. It’s like the plague.”
“Here’s a key thing that we’re going to try to do. We are going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”
In a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt said the following:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Tennessee teachers are “in the arena” every day, and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents has supported and will continue to support public educators.
Tennessee public school students, past and present, practice the benefits they receive from teachers in public classrooms. They do research in world-class scientific institutions. They build automobiles. They grow the food that feeds the nation and, indeed, the world. They dispense justice and defend the defenseless. They heal the sick. They fuel commerce through entrepreneurship. They minister to congregations. And, yes, teachers prepare children in classrooms for all of these, and countless other professions.
Public schools and teachers in Tennessee accept every child regardless of ability, background, or disability. The goal is to make every student an educated, productive citizen. Teachers do far more than provide quality instruction to their students. They also provide food, clothing, counseling, tutoring, protection from abuse, medical assistance, and assurances of safety. Special educators, in particular, provide exceptional services for every imaginable disability, including children ranging from the exceedingly gifted to those with profound disabilities.
Unfortunately for Mr. Arnn, a public school critic, a public school education also confers the ability to listen, analyze, discern, and comprehend. It is clear that the motive for Mr. Arnn’s criticism of public schools and public school teachers is driven by his desire to expand his charter school empire into Tennessee. And from all indications, he has the assistance he seeks in this endeavor.
The value of public education and public school teachers cannot be adequately stated in any single writing. Rather, the value of public schools and public school teachers is demonstrated in the daily lives of Tennesseans who worship, work, give of their time and resources, assist their neighbors, and vote. The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents gives its profound thanks to all of those in public education who strive daily to make this state a better place to live for all of its residents.
Rest assured, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents will work diligently to resist the efforts of misguided critics who are not “in the arena” and whose supercilious opinions are worthy only of collective disdain.
Of course, despite the fallout, Hillsdale would not be denied. Although the school boards in all three districts rejected the Hillsdale applications, the Hillsdale charters appealed to Gov. Lee’s hand-picked State Charter Commission.
Hillsdale also conducted a PR offensive to try to sway public opinion and stop the bleeding.
In August, I noted:
Hillsdale College Larry Arnn is mad that people in Tennessee are telling the truth about his intentions. He’s even more mad that he was caught on tape making disparaging remarks about teachers and colleges of education. He’s not sorry about what he said. He’s made that clear. He IS sorry that when he told the truth, it disrupted his plans to shift public money to his private school pushing a Christian Nationalist agenda by way of Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools.
Now, Hillsdale is texting Tennesseans with a link to a page that tells the “truth” about Hillsdale.
Despite the PR attacks, by late September, Hillsdale had decided to pull its appeals and regroup.
Alas, Hillsdale is still hungry for taxpayer cash to serve their privatization agenda. Now, they are applying to open charter schools in five counties - Madison, Montgomery, Maury, Rutherford, and Robertson.
Not only will Hillsdale charters costs local taxpayers a lot of money at the expense of public schools, the rhetoric of Arnn and his Hillsdale apologists is pretty alarming:
Unless something changes - unless the General Assembly, which returns in January of 2023 - takes action, Hillsdale will begin its assault on our public schools and local tax bases with the full support of a Governor who ran on an agenda of privatization.