After inflammatory comments about teachers emerged over the weekend from one of Gov. Bill Lee's education advisors, the governor is playing damage control.
A recent event in Franklin saw Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College and an adviser for Lee on potential Hillsdale-led charter schools in the state, insult the broader profession of teaching and the college programs that train teachers.
Arnn claimed at the June event that teachers "are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country," and that "you don't have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it."
He also called public education "the plague." NewsChannel5 was first to report on the comments from the closed-door event in Cool Springs that saw Arnn host Lee as his "special guest."
Lee sat with Arnn onstage during some of these comments and did not push back against them in the public forum. He said this week he will not rebuke Arnn's comments, instead describing them as critiques against progressivism.
In a radio appearance with conservative SuperTalk 99.7 WTN host Matt Murphy, Lee tried to reframe Arnn's comments as a partisan attack on "left-wing" issues in education rather than a referendum on the general education system.
"Let me just say ... I'm not going to rebut someone who was speaking about left-wing problems in public education in this country that have actually hurt the genuine work of our teachers," Lee told Murphy in the interview. "It was not a conversation about Tennessee teachers then, and it's not going to become a debate about them now.
"There's a recognition that there is an agenda by many in this country — a left-wing agenda, frankly — that creeps its way into our public school system at the detriment of our teachers, which is really, broadly, what that conversation was about," Lee added. "You know what, that's why we, in our state, passed a law prohibiting 'Critical Race Theory.' That's why we, in our state, passed a law that allowed parents to have access to what their kids have access to in a library."
Lee did affirm his confidence in the state's teachers, himself a graduate of Franklin High School.
"I will put our teachers up against anyone in the country when it comes to their performance and their value, and that is not what was on debate that night and that's not what's on debate today," he said. "Teaching is a calling, I've said it. It's not a profession; it's a calling, and our Tennessee teachers are called. ... They have sacrificed greatly with tremendous results. ... The legislature understands that, too."
He touted his support for increasing public teacher salaries and the state's investments into public education in his annual state budgets. He also spoke to efforts the state is undertaking to retain the state's students and turn them into teachers via an apprenticeship program.
"I am fully supportive of our teachers and always have been," Lee said. "Nobody speaks for the governor but the governor, and the governor has never said anything ... except speaking the highest praise for our teachers."
Critics continue to push back against Arnn's insults
Arnn's comments have continued to draw bipartisan criticism from people in Tennessee, despite Lee's attempt at explaining them.
Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton disavowed Arnn's comments in a statement Wednesday.
"Having parents and grandparents as teachers, I know firsthand the dedication, the passion and the abilities needed in the classroom. I will never agree with or support Mr. Arnn’s comments," he said. "He has insulted generations of teachers who have made a difference for countless students. We have successful Tennesseans today because teachers made a difference in their lives."
Republican state Sen. Paul Bailey added, "I fully support Tennessee's public school teachers. They are smart, dedicated professionals that deserve our appreciation."
The Collierville School System is set to hold a special meeting July 7, with a resolution in "support of educators" on the docket.
Carson-Newman University, one of the state's more prominent colleges for producing teachers, saw its president, Dr. Charles Fowler, push back against Arnn's comments as well.
"We are proud of our university's rich history and tradition of educating Tennessee's finest teachers," Fowler said in a statement. "The recently highlighted derogatory comments made at a political event about the competency of the more than 70,000 teachers who are educating Tennessee's children are misguided, inappropriate and uninformed.
"Educators in Tennessee deserve our appreciation, especially after navigating the challenges of a pandemic. Their service and dedication are marked with stories of those who continually go the extra mile to ensure their students receive a quality education."
Protesters voiced their displeasure in Arnn's comments at a fundraiser Tuesday for Hamilton County mayoral candidate Weston Wamp where Lee was present.
Wamp spoke against Arnn's comments as demonstrations went on outside his fundraiser, though he said he feels that those remarks don't reflect the state's views on its educators.
"Those cavalier, really inappropriate remarks, I don't think are a reflection of the way that state government feels about education," Wamp told Local 3 News. "They're certainly not a reflection of how county leaders or how I feel about educators."