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REVEALED: Hillsdale controversy brings rare bipartisan unity on need to review proposed charter schools

Legislature's top Republicans promise intense scrutiny for Hilldale charter schools, possible new law to limit unapproved curriculum
Posted: 2:27 PM, Jul 14, 2022
Updated: 2024-01-10 11:31:13-05
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Democrats are calling on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and their Republican colleagues to reject the controversial Hillsdale curriculum that suggests children be taught that the civil rights movement veered from the true intentions of the nation's founders, that laws against discrimination violated the spirit of the Constitution.

Lee — who has invited Michigan's ultra-conservative Hillsdale College to set up 50-100 taxpayer-funded charter schools across the state — has refused to say directly whether he agrees with college president Larry Arnn and Hillsdale's "1776 Curriculum."

Now, the legislature's top two Republicans are promising renewed scrutiny for Hillsdale and those teaching materials. House Speaker Cameron Sexton said that could include new legislation to prevent the Lee administration from unilaterally approving the curriculum.

"Imagine being so ashamed of your history that you would prefer to change the facts rather than learn from its misdeeds and mistakes and make a better future for everyone," House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville said.

REVEALED: Legislature's top Republicans promise intense scrutiny for Hilldale charter schools, possible new law to limit unapproved curriculum

"We (Black people) were stripped of our history when we were kidnapped and brought to this land as slaves. This is a continuation of destroying Black history and sowing division amongst Americans.

In a written statement provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates, Dixie added: "The thought that Larry Arrn and his revisionist dogma could be taught to the minds of the children of Tennessee sickens me."

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Vincent Dixie statement

NewsChannel 5 Investigates has reached out to the legislature's Republican leaders, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, for their response, along with the Republican chairs of the Senate and House education committees.

McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said in a statement, “Obviously, Lt. Governor McNally supports the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as did a majority of Republicans in Congress when it passed."

The statement continued:

"Lt. Governor McNally has previously pointed out that Hillsdale has no official role in education policy in the state at this time. Hillsdale has the opportunity to go through the same charter school authorization process as any other operator. And the State of Board of Education has to approve curriculum for any public school, though they may apply for waiver.

"Lt. Governor McNally has no doubt that the president’s comments on teachers as well as Hillsdale’s civil rights curriculum will feature prominently in the vetting process, when and if they apply.”

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Statement from Lt. Gov's office

House Speaker Sexton said in a separate statement that "as a private college, Hillsdale has the authority to create a curriculum for its students."

"However, the 1776 curriculum is not on the approved list in Tennessee," Sexton said. "It appears the Department of Education considers 1776 as supplemental materials, which means a waiver can be granted for its usage.

"We’ve had serious issues with many materials being used in the classroom under the supplemental materials waiver. In 2023, we’ll focus our attention on this apparent workaround, just like we did this past year, adding legislative appointments to the State Board of Education for more legislative oversight.”

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House Speaker statement

That statement was a reference to legislation passed earlier this year to take the authority to appoint members of the State Board of Education away from Lee, giving the General Assembly the authority to select those individuals.

This comes amid ongoing controversy over a hidden-camera video obtained by NewsChannel 5 that shows Arnn and Lee at a private reception where Arnn argued that public school teachers come from "the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges." Arnn also claimed experts are not needed to educate children, that "anybody can do it."


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Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the House Education Administration Committee, has said that Hillsdale's hopes have been "shattered" as a result of those provocative comments.

Yet, not as much attention has been paid to Hillsdale's government curriculum, which was developed as part of the work of a commission formed by former President Donald Trump.

As NewsChannel 5 first reported, the "1776 Curriculum" says students should be taught that "the civil rights movement was almost immediately turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders."

It falsely claims that Dr. Martin Luther King "appealed to the individual conscience and not the force of law to bring about a color-blind society."

As for federal laws opening up lunch counters and outlawing discrimination in restaurants, hotels and theaters, Hillsdale's curriculum says, "this was where the line between private conscience and government coercion began to blur."


Charter school program favored by Tennessee governor rewrites civil rights history

House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis said that "Arnn’s interpretation is of the Constitution is exactly why his Hillsdale disciples and their doctrine should never be allowed in Tennessee schools."

"To say that the hard-fought legal battles that Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall and many others won in the Supreme Court and in courts throughout the land were won as a result of an appeal to 'individual conscience and not the force of law to bring about a color-blind society' simply ignores historical facts which Mr. Arnn should be old enough to remember," Camper said.

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Rep. Karen Camper statement

"The owners of transportation services, restaurants and department stores fought tooth and nail to keep Black people in separate, segregated conditions. To believe otherwise is believing a fantasy."

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville agreed.

"What's dumb here is the way Hillsdale curriculum just ignores basic history to push a political agenda," Yarbro said.

"They're trying to re-write the history of the civil rights movement, teaching that the desegregation of lunch counters violated the business owners' constitutional rights.

"Most parents want their kids to learn how to read, to do math, and to learn their country's history — the good and the bad. What Hillsdale is pushing is indoctrination, and it's dangerous."

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Sen. Jeff Yarbro statement

The Nashville Democrat continued, "Our teachers are smart enough to recognize Hillsdale propaganda so it's no wonder Hillsdale is trying to undermine Tennessee teachers."

Senate Education Committee Chair Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, however, was not concerned.

"I found your first report regarding Hillsdale’s president enlightening – to say the least," Lundberg said in an email.

"Obviously, his (Arnn's) comments had virtually statewide condemnation. I thought it was solid reporting – and a good basis for further discussion regarding Hillsdale’s planned expansion of charter schools in Tennessee.

"However, your latest e-mail and questions are not solid. You take a portion of two sentences of a several-months-long class and ask various people to pass a judgment on an entire curriculum.

"Your first piece highlight(ing) Arnn’s comments received – and continues to receive – the notoriety it deserves. This story does not."

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Sen. Jon Lundberg statement

House education chairs Mark White and Debra Moody did not respond to the request for comment.

Dixie noted that the Republican legislature has outlawed the teaching of so-called critical race theory, "which wasn’t even being taught, while our Governor embraces bringing racist, revisionist history to our classrooms."

"If lawmakers truly believe in their rationale for banning nonexistent CRT classes then banning the 1776 curriculum should be next on our list."

Dixie said "Lee should be appalled and ashamed to have any affiliation with Hillsdale College and Arnn."

"Unfortunately, you can’t shame the shameless. Lee’s actions come as no surprise since this is the same person that wore a Confederate uniform to a college party. When people show you who they are, we should believe them."

The governor has twice sidestepped NewsChannel 5's questions about the curriculum, only saying that he opposes racial discrimination without addressing the question of whether he agrees with Hillsdale that the civil rights laws went too far.

Recent news reports have indicated that Hillsdale has been involved in developing social studies curriculum in Florida and South Dakota.


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