Gov. Bill Lee made clear in his State of the State that he is a proponent of an alternative history known as “American exceptionalism.”
This theory is grounded in a sort of American evangelicalism – and certainly has strong ties to far-right Christian movements. To advance his “exceptionalism agenda” Lee has announced a partnership with conservative Hillsdale College – a private, Christian school in Michigan. Yes, Tennessee is such a great example of exceptionalism that we have to turn to a private college from Michigan to “properly” teach history.
Here’s a note on that from Lee’s speech:
Two years ago, I traveled to Hillsdale College to participate in a Presidents Day celebration and spend time with champions of American exceptionalism.
For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.
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.
WPLN reports that public education advocates are raising concerns about the transfer of Tennessee tax dollars to a private, religious institution:
Lee has made a deal with a conservative college to open about 50 charter schools in the state.
Lee has made a deal with Hillsdale College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, to bring their civic education and K-12 curriculum to Tennessee.
Beth Brown, the [Tennessee Education] association’s president, says there is no need to bring in outsiders to implement a new curriculum or to set aside $32 million for new charter schools, a key element in the proposal.
“The concern is that we’re taking taxpayer dollars and we’re going to take those taxpayer dollars away from our public schools and give them to private entities,” said Brown.
It’s noteworthy, too, that Lee cited Ronald Reagan in his address:
I recently watched President Reagan’s farewell address, made just before he left office in January of 1989.
As many other Presidents have done, his farewell address includes a warning to the American people.
He reminds us that what we want to have in this country is “informed patriotism.”
Lee claims that he has been inspired by Reagan’s words. This inspiration is ostensibly the impetus for the focus on an American exceptionalism curriculum from Hillsdale College.
Of course, Reagan is no stranger to efforts to dismantle public education and turn schools over to those on the extreme right of the political spectrum.
In fact, a June piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by education journalists Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider point out that today’s privatization movement has roots in Reaganism:
This crusade against public higher education eerily presaged today’s school culture wars. Where Reagan made a target of ethnic studies and tried to keep Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, from teaching philosophy at UCLA, today’s bogeyman is critical race theory or CRT — a legal theory that has become a vague catchall for grievances of the sort that Reagan weaponized so effectively. To date, laws aimed at restricting how public school teachers talk about race and racism have been proposed in 22 states and signed into law in five.
Public schools, GOP leaders have argued, are teaching children to believe that the country is inherently bad. But just as Reagan used his anti-campus campaign to undermine support for public higher education, his disciples are motivated by a similar cause. For a Republican party that has grown increasingly hostile to public education, the K-12 culture war is also an opportunity to advance the cause of school privatization.
State legislators, meanwhile, have introduced a flurry of bills aimed at cutting funds from schools with curricula that the GOP deems unacceptable. In Michigan, a proposed measure would cut 5% of funding if school districts teach “anti-American” ideas about race in America, material from the 1619 Project, or critical race theory. In Tennessee, a new law empowers the state’s education chief to withhold funds from schools found to be teaching components of critical race theory.
The constant drumbeat that public schools are indoctrinating children, however, serves as a powerful nudge to parents to flee them. If their tax dollars are paying for something they’re opposed to, then maybe privatization isn’t such a terrible idea after all. This was Reagan’s move.
This, then, gets to the heart of Lee’s education “reform” agenda. He’s overhauling the school funding formula (BEP) to make it “student-centered.” While his voucher scheme languishes in the courts, Lee is taking the first steps to create a new funding formula that builds a bridge to vouchers. Don’t like all the “indoctrination” at your local school? Take that state money and hand it over to a Hillsdale charter school that proudly evangelizes about America’s “good old days.”
Here’s how he phrases it in the speech:
I’m proposing an innovative approach that sets aside dollars for each student, based on their individual needs, and these dollars will be used in whatever public school they attend.
Guess what? Hillsdale’s charter schools would be public schools under Tennessee law – Lee is proposing handing over state money to a private, religious college to run “public” schools.
Ronald Reagan would most certainly be very proud of the division and discord Lee is sowing in the name of turning public money over to private, right-wing Christian school operators.
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