NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — First, he claimed public school teachers came from "the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges."
Now, new video obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates shows a top education adviser to Gov. Bill Lee trashing the programs that train Tennessee teachers, arguing that a person "who knows the least" could design a school curriculum to teach children.
Last week, Lee refused to repudiate the remarks of Larry Arnn, the president of Michigan's ultra-conservative Hillsdale College. Lee has Arnn to set up 50-100 privately operated, publicly funded charter schools across Tennessee.
But the head of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that Lee needs to go further.
"I think the governor does need to say more," said Claude Pressnell, whose group includes Vanderbilt, Lipscomb, Belmont and Trevecca universities.
"And I think what he needs to say needs to be on point to our concern, and our concern is Larry Arnn.
"We don't need someone in the state of Tennessee who comes from Michigan to come in and demean our current system in such an incredible way just to give himself credibility."
Appearing with Lee last month before at an invitation-only reception in Williamson County, Arnn appeared to relish his role as a MAGA-inspired rebel in the educational community.
"I got named in the New Republic magazine as number one on the top 10 list of enemies of our democracy," Arnn said with a smile, drawing applause from the audience.
Arnn went on to describe how Hillsdale's approach to charter schools in Tennessee would differ from traditional public schools.
"The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country, and they are taught that they are going to do something to those kids," Arnn told Lee.
He continued, "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.”
Facing a firestorm of criticism, Lee had tried last week to explain away his friend's comments.
"It wasn't about Tennessee teachers or Tennessee schools as much as it was about activism in education this country," the Republican governor told reporters.
"To say that teacher ed programs are from the dumbest parts of the dumbest universities is not appropriate in any context — even if you disagree with what is going on in that context, demeaning them is not the way to do it."
"I think that it's unfortunate that the adviser to the governor on educational policy just doesn't feel good about education and teaching itself."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Pressnell what he makes of Arnn's attitude.
"Well," he answered, "what I make of his attitude is he seems to be trying to make a point of the value of Hillsdale at the expense of everybody else."
While Lee had tried to explain away his friend's comments, NewsChannel 5 Investigates tracked down more video — this one from a 2021 speech right here in the Midstate — where the Hillsdale president again attacked teacher education programs.
"Teaching is a very high calling. They are not trained that way anymore, and that's too bad," Arnn said.
"What happens at those state universities is that they are clones of the most elite, to the best of their ability -- very common that is. It is the third-tier ones — and second-tier ones, some — that train the teachers."
Watch video excerpt below:
In an email, Hillsdale spokesperson Emily Stack Davis defended Arnn's statements.
"Dr. Arnn holds the utmost respect for teachers and their profession," she continued.
"He wants them to succeed, and it's for this reason that Dr. Arnn has spoken out against education programs that have let teachers down, and, as a result, let down students and parents as well."
Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats took offense to Arnn's claims.
"I know that the universities that I've attended, they are not third-rate universities. I've come from some of the best."
"I just believe he is trying to make all Tennesseans believe his lies so that he can just privatize. That's what I believe."
Pressnell also objected.
"Vanderbilt University is anything but a second-rate institution, and I would say that about all our independent colleges."
But Arnn wasn't finished.
He continued in the 2021 speech, "If the one in this room who knows the least about it set out honestly to construct a basic curriculum along the long-established lines, you would do it more or less successfully in about a month. It's not that hard."
"For him to say that the least of them in that audience could do it and be up to speed within a month again is just a gross underestimation of the value of the teacher education profession," Pressnell said.
Arnn also claimed that no Hillsdale student had ever left kindergarten unable to read.
"That's what he was describing there, that they can read words on a page," Pressnell said.
"That's not what we are talking about in Tennessee. We are talking about comprehension, we are talking about doing literature comparatives. We are talking about getting the main idea out of it, being able to understand the central theme of the passage and how it compares to other literature."
In the 2021 video, Arnn said he planned to talk to Lee about Hillsdale setting up an education center in Tennessee that among other things could help train teachers — an idea that, in the recent hidden-camera video, Arnn claimed was something Lee wanted.
"He said he wanted charter schools and an education center," Arnn told the audience.
Lee's communications director Laine Arnold, in an email, said nothing like that is currently in the works.
"Hillsdale is renowned for its classical education teacher training. However, the state is not engaged on this project," Arnold said.
The college spokesperson said in her email: "There are no formal nor finalized plans for a Hillsdale College-affiliated education center in Tennessee. Discussions on that topic remain conceptual and exploratory in nature."
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