Over six weeks have passed since video leaked of Larry Arnn, the 12th president of Hillsdale College, speaking at a private event in Williamson County. In the clip, Arnn takes the educational establishment to task for hiring teachers trained by "the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country" and enriching DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) administrators who "don't have to know anything" as Governor Bill Lee stands idly by. Since the video became public, Tennessee had a firecracker of a state primary, Metro Council started a war with the General Assembly for rebuffing the 2024 Republican Nashville Convention, the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, the CDC radically altered COVID guidelines while admitting the ineffectiveness of vaccines, and an Islamic fundamentalist stabbed author Salman Rushdie over thirty years after the Ayatollah issued a fatwa against him. Yet, in what may be one of the most newsworthy summers on record, local media continue to obsess over Arnn’s comments and weaponize them to combat the growing popularity of charter schools.
Leading the charge is NewsChannel 5’s Phil Williams, a once-passable muckraker of the local- yokel, CBS-affiliate variety in such decline that the third act of his career has largely consisted of retweeting COVID case numbers moments after their release. Any preteen with an iPhone and cursory knowledge of boolean operators could assume Williams’s role in Music City, which may explain why he is so hellbent on perpetually riding the Arnn wave. At last count, he’s published nearly a dozen articles about the controversy–the most recent features “breaking” news of exclusive information easily found on Hillsdale’s website complete with an adorable flowchart. Not to be outdone, Scene churnalist Betsy Phillips has routinely called out Arnn’s elitism by mocking his degree from Arkansas State and supporting her assessment of him as a grifter with dictionary definitions and Bible verses.
While the impetus for the outrage Williams and his imitators have stoked over Arnn’s comments squarely resides within the realm of self-preservation as legacy media further erodes, Americans’ increased skepticism about the quality of public education has fragmented the Obama coalition that pundits thought would inevitably install one-party rule. Pandemic fetish may have kept Williams’s pink slip at bay an extra year or two, but, for many parents, the remote learning and arbitrary health mandates COVID spawned exposed the overwhelming deficiencies in public school systems. Last Fall, Glenn Youngkin rode a surprise Red Wave in Virginia built upon the anger of the suburban parents whom his rival, former governor Terry McAuliffe, said had no role in their children’s education. Likewise, as Ron DeSantis cements his status as MAGA heir apparent, the press has largely neglected that he narrowly won his 2018 gubernatorial race against the now-disgraced-and-indicted meth head Andrew Gillum because his stance on school choice appealed to minority women.
Given increased parental involvement in local schoolboard decisions (see Williamson County’s elevation to the national news cycle last year) and the recently passed Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement plan that places charter schools in direct competition with their underperforming public counterparts, the all-out assault on and intentional mischaracterization of Hillsdale are nothing more than pathos-riddled attempts to position Arnn–and by extension the populist wing of the Republican party–as bullies. If their reporting is any indication, Williams and Phillips’s most perverse fantasy involves a cadre of white, cis-male charter school advocates as Brando and his biker gang from The Wild One bursting into the kindergarten classrooms of overworked, underpaid, bespectacled, cardigan-clad elementary school teachers; ripping up inspirational posters; and graffitiing the chalkboard with Milton Friedman quotes as teary-eyed tots look on in horror.
Such scandal-mongering aside, Arnn’s comments are much more rooted in documented research and an understanding of educational trends than any of the shallow hit pieces that continue to dominate local media. In what may be the only display of journalistic integrity during this manufactured controversy, The Tennessean provided space for Arnn to clarify that he intended his use of “dumb” to mean “misdirected” or “ill-concieved” rather than “unintelligent.” While his plea for nuance is much appreciated, K-12 education has long served as a magnet for unimpressive and underprepared educators in training, a fact politicians and teachers’ unions have assiduously evaded for decades. When Ronald Reagan commissioned the 1983 report A Nation at Risk to justify dissolving the Carter-created Department of Education, findings indicated that not only do a preponderance of teachers graduate in the bottom quarter of their high-school and college classes, but many also receive little training in their subject areas since most education programs focus on methods over content—a finding Williams could have easily Googled that lends credence to Arnn’s claims. Public outcry over the report’s conclusions made it the most requested government document of all time and, in an ironic twist, redefined it as a pillar of national security policy to such an extent that the Department of Education became a fixture of the federal government after the Cold War. Despite legacy media’s persistent allegiance to public education, report after report has shown that a substantial number of the system’s teachers continue to graduate in the bottom 25-30% of their classes.
For some graduates of public education programs, such statistics accurately reflect their undergraduate experience. “The American public school system sets everyone up for failure,” said Nikki, a former public elementary school teacher who left the classroom for stints at an educational startup and a marketing firm after graduating with her Master’s in Education nine years ago. “Any intellectual and morally just desire to help students learn is squashed by mediocre teacher prep, colleagues who are waiting for a rich husband, or a lack of pay.” Nikki earned her degrees in Louisiana before moving to North Carolina, but her peers’ lack of seriousness and dedication to the discipline still make her bristle. Though a handful of her classmates earned top grades and entered the classroom, her graduating class also included a new teacher who told students “magnets were magic” and the daughter of a KKK leader. “I had two colleagues in undergrad who could not pass basic elementary school math. That was scary,” said Nikki. “It was mind numbingly easy. One of them was a pro-runner for our school. How are you going to teach elementary school if you can’t add?”
Big Education and its surrogates have spent decades doing damage control by crafting images of teachers as meek, underpaid public servants beyond reproach. Yet, Hillsdale has acknowledged the lack of adequate teacher training and, unlike the public school system, offered a solution: the Barney Charter School Initiative, which began in 2010. “We want to help these schools find teachers who can bring the material to life, help those teachers with their craft, and help these schools turn into places where they can spend their entire career, ” said Dr. Kathleen O’Toole, Assistant Provost for K-12 Education at Hillsdale. “That means teacher observations, conferences for teachers, and demo lessons.”
As a nonprofit, Hillsdale offers its resources free of charge thanks to the tens of thousands of donors who have kept the institution thriving since its inception in 1844. In sharp contrast to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie’s remark that Arnn, “doesn’t value other people who don’t look like him and have his background,” Hillsdale has been a haven for diversity since its founding despite the bureaucratic class’s history of trying to smear Arnn by taking his comments about race out of context. The College has always accepted women, Native Americans, and African-American students–an inclusive history not even the Ivy and Seven Sisters counterparts that educated its fiercest opponents can claim. “It was founded with a profound respect for the role education plays not only for young people, but in the life of adults,” said O’Toole.
Local and national media outlets have successfully painted Hillsdale as a nefarious puppet master infiltrating our state’s school systems for profit, deliberately omitting the college’s reliance on small donations to thrive (Phillips even compares Arnn to the con-artist antiheros of The Music Man and The Rainmaker in the Scene). Contrary to this media narrative, Hillsdale’s K-12 program has no such designs. When schools adopt its resources, Hillsdale does not profit whatsoever. Interested charters–and even local public schools–can associate with Hillsdale either as a curriculum school that uses its educational resources grounded in classical education or as a member school in which the organization provides teacher training, mentorship, and consultation as part of its nonprofit mission. “A lot of adults today look back on the education that students receive at Hillsdale Academy or at our affiliated charter schools and they think, ‘Wow, I wish I had that when I grew up,’” said O’Toole, a school principal before she began work with Hillsdale. “I know from firsthand experience how deprived parents today feel when they look back on their K-12 years, especially when they see their kids at a Hillsdale school learning Latin, studying art history, and learning to read music by 5th grade.”
Although overshadowed by the semantic manipulation of his use of “dumb,” Arnn’s commentary on higher education’s administrative bloat harming the college experience has long been a bipartisan talking point in post-secondary education. Over the past 25 years, the percentage of college administrators has doubled, far outpacing gains in faculty and student growth. Such untenable expense has led to an epidemic of stagnant professor salaries, rising student loan debt to cover a bevy of six-figure paychecks for a hoard of vice-assistant provosts, and a faculty that consists of 50-80% adjuncts on limited contracts, who often cobble together a living teaching at multiple institutions in contingent roles. As twice-tenured former Princeton and Vanderbilt professor Dr. Carol Swain told The Pamphleteer earlier this year, much of this growth has come from an influx of DEI officers holding degrees in programs with dubious academic standards–the very species of wayward bureaucrats Arnn eviscerated in his hot-mic moment.
In an effort to discredit initiatives similar to Hillsdale’s pioneering program, opponents continue to accuse charter schools of filling their classrooms with uncertified, inexperienced teachers who lack the training of their public-school counterparts, a thread that runs through all of the negative local press Arnn has amassed this summer. However, Nashville’s intrepid class of ink-stained scribes has utterly ignored the Metro Nashville Public School System's routine hiring of undergraduates with no training in education. Working with a third-party headhunting agency, Metro targets recent graduates with degrees in fields facing teacher shortages like math, science, and foreign language a few weeks before the start of the fall semester, right when their postgrad anxieties are at a peak. They recruit through social media apps such as LinkedIn, offering an immediate job and covering costs for all required exams such as the PRAXIS. However, Metro requires its recruits to complete a Master’s or an authorized teacher training program on their own dime. Recruits who fail to stay in the system at a Title I school for two years must pay back test fees or other expenses related to their hiring.
As a result, teachers with no training or qualifications are in the classroom for at least a year before they earn their credentials. “I feel like they prey on young, new graduates and dangle this salaried job with benefits,” said a former participant in this program who wishes to remain anonymous. Though this former teacher survived in the system for two and a half years, she resigned due to fear for her safety after a student attacked her department head and faced no consequences—the 19th reported assault at her school since she began. She now has $22,000 of student loan debt she incurred completing her mandatory training —a debt amount similar to what Nikki amassed for a degree now unrelated to her current occupation. Worse, the former MNPS teacher cannot teach elsewhere because she claims Metro lost portions of her continuing education records required to keep her license up to date. The experience soured the former teacher on the profession. “I know of maybe one teacher [from the program] who thoroughly enjoyed her job,” she said. “I don’t see how anyone could enjoy it.”
The Pamphleteer contacted Sean Braisted, Executive Officer of Communications at MNPS, for more information about its recruitment practices and employment of new college graduates with no education experience. Ignoring our requests, Braisted bizarrely steered our exchange toward strongarming us to reveal our sources. “What are their names?” was his terse response to questions unrelated to the identities of any past or current MNPS teachers. When informed that the sources who spoke to us wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, Braisted responded, “Without that information, I won’t be able to help you with your story.” Consequently, our questions regarding the name of the third-party recruiting firm, the details of the program, and the turnover rate for participants all remain unanswered, an act of subterfuge by a public school bureaucracy whose tactics resemble those of Tony Soprano more than Howard Gardner.
As Williams gleefully reported at the end of July, Rutherford, Clarksville-Montgomery, and Jackson-Madison County have rejected applications for Hillsdale-affiliated charters since the fabrication of the Arnn scandal, leaving those institutions no other avenue but an appeal to the state. Before the next thinkpiece disparaging Arnn enters the fray, one would do well to investigate who benefits from embroiling him in controversy. Metro schools remain mired in both a teacher shortage and unsafe conditions that impact student learning. According to this year’s assessments, 27% of MNPS students read at grade level and 19% are on level in math which the same local media criticizing Hillsdale tout as an improvement. Williams and Phillips craft pseudo-bombshells that prop up their faltering outlets while Braisted makes over $150 thousand a year as Metro’s resident enforcer. Meanwhile, MNPS and other union-dominated districts exploit dedicated teachers, many of whom, as Nikki said, live with their own neglect and trauma and are “drawn to teaching to help others. So, they [administrators] inherently set teachers up to fail while they use their goodwill to justify bad pay and bad working conditions.” There’s only one word to characterize such predatory behavior and willful preservation of the mediocre. That word is “dumb.”