MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WTVF) — Gov. Bill Lee — who had enthusiastically embraced a "partnership" with Michigan's Hillsdale College to bring a network of charter schools to Tennessee — tried to distance himself Wednesday from the ultraconservative college whose president sparked a political firestorm with his attack on public school teachers.
This comes after school boards in Rutherford, Montgomery, and Madison counties all voted in the past week to reject applications from a Hillsdale-affiliated group to open the privately-operated schools in their communities.
Lee, who was in Murfreesboro to speak to an EMT group, refused to say whether he thought Hillsdale ought to appeal to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission or whether the commission, which he appoints, should overrule those school boards.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lee why those school board votes should not be seen as a repudiation of his vision of Hillsdale being a key part of his "school choice" efforts.
"It shouldn't be seen that way because it's not my vision," Lee claimed, adding that his vision is "to create the best public school system in the country."
Lee had asked Arnn to help establish 50 to 100 of the taxpayer-funded schools across the state as part of his push for "informed patriotism" in schools.
Controversy erupted three weeks ago when NewsChannel 5 Investigates aired hidden camera video showing Hillsdale president Larry Arrn trashing public teachers at a private reception with Lee, claiming education degrees are "easy" because "you don't have to know anything" and arguing you don't need experts teaching children, that "anybody can do it."
The Tennessee Republican never expressed disagreement with his friend and education adviser.
Since then, Lee has resisted calls for him to publicly repudiate Arrn's words, choosing instead to express his support for teachers without admitting any regret for his silence.
Asked by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, Lee acknowledged that he has spoken to Arnn since the controversy erupted.
"He talked, and I listened," Lee said.
J.C. Bowman, with Professional Educators of Tennessee, said:
“Governor Lee needs to remember the most important people he can listen to are the citizens of our state.
"He seems to have placed our state interest behind those of a national agenda. We would implore him to believe in Tennesseans, who have always displayed grit and determination to meet any challenge our state has faced.
"Our educators are among the best, most resilient people in our state, and our Governor should take the time to hear what they have to say on public education.”
Back in January, during his State of the State Address, the governor received a standing ovation from the legislature's Republican supermajority when he announced the "partnership' with Hillsdale.
Lee called people at the private Christian college "champions of American exceptionalism."
"For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty," Lee said at the time.
"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."
Yet, applications by the Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy were rejected in three separate votes over the past week.
Among the criticisms cited by the three school boards has been Hillsdale's plans to seek waivers against state requirements setting minimum standards for teachers.
"They do not and did not intend to hire licensed teachers, licensed principals," Rutherford County school board member Sheila Bratton said.
"They did not intend to do any kind of evaluations using the team evaluation that we use here in Tennessee."
Clarksville-Montgomery County school board member Jimmie Garland urged the governor not to force their district to pay for such a privately operated school.
"I am asking him if he sends them here, that he pay for it — not the community, not the Clarksville-Montgomery County school system, not the 200,000-plus residents of Clarksville," Garland told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"We shouldn't have to foot that bill."
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