Stockard on the Stump: American Classical heads for the Hills-dale

September 30, 2022 6:02 am
Tess Stovall, left, executive director of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, and Ashley Thomas, general counsel, at Thursday's public hearing in Rutherford County. (Photo: Justin Kanew/Tennessee Holler)

Tess Stovall, left, executive director of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, and Ashley Thomas, general counsel, at a Sept. 2022 hearing for American Classical Schools in Rutherford County. (Photo: Justin Kanew/Tennessee Holler)

Gov. Bill Lee and Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn are taking their lumps after affiliate American Classical Education withdrew requests Thursday for three charter schools in Tennessee.

Lee wanted Hillsdale to put 100 here, but since Arnn said teachers come from “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” they’ve been hounded from hell for refusing to take a step back.

American Classical, nevertheless, withdrew appeals Thursday after being rejected in Madison, Montgomery and Rutherford counties. 

Phil Williams from Nashville’s News Channel 5 weeted video this week of Hillsdale’s David Azerrad belittling Black history makers such as George Washington Carver and the mathematicians highlighted in “Hidden Figures” who helped propel NASA rockets into space.

Those were to be heard Oct. 5 by the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, but the charter operator dropped its appeals “because of the limited time to resolve the concerns raised” by commission staff and the meeting time, which wouldn’t allow commissioners to hear from community members, according to a letter signed by Dolores Gresham, chair of American Classical Education, former chairman of the state Senate Education Committee and the Senate’s chief scold.

“ACE requested a delay to address concerns and clarify confusion and misconceptions raised by commission staff in each of the public hearings earlier this month, but understand that request could not be accommodated,” Gresham’s letter says. 

Gresham pointed out that many parents would be on fall break next week and wouldn’t be able to voice their support for American Classical charters. (Maybe it’s not as important as they claimed?)

Public Charter School Commission spokesman Chase Ingle said Thursday the commission “didn’t raise any concerns with them necessarily,” but he did point out that the commission had to handle the appeal within 75 days and postponing would have been a violation of state law.

Commission Executive Director Tess Stovall questioned the new makeup of the group’s board during a September hearing in Murfreesboro. It was altered to add more Tennesseans, and she pointed out the commission would be considering an application by a group that hadn’t even applied.

A Rutherford County woman holds a sign making her feelings clear about American Classical Academy charter schools at a Thursday hearing. (Photo: Justin Kanew/Tennessee Holler)
A Rutherford County parent protesting a recent appeal for a charter school by American Classical Schools. (Photo: Justin Kanew/Tennessee Holler)

Lee wouldn’t say Thursday whether he would support a Hillsdale affiliate if it were to make another application.

“I remain committed to the fact we should provide parents choices in this state for education. I continue to believe that we should have classical education options for parents, but the decision that was made there is entirely their decision,” he said.

Hillsdale looked even worse this week when NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams tweeted video of Hillsdale’s David Azerrad belittling Black history makers such as George Washington Carver and the mathematicians highlighted in “Hidden Figures” who helped propel NASA rockets into space.

Asked Thursday about those racist statements and whether he backs them, Lee told a reporter he would have to talk to the person who made them.

Education chairman satisfied

Two months after saying Hillsdale College’s hopes for charter schools in Tennessee are “shattered,” Rep. Mark White is glad to see its charter affiliates dropping applications statewide.

“I believe that’s a good decision by American Classical Education at this time due to the events of the last summer,” White said Thursday.

White, an East Memphis Republican who chairs the House Education Administration Committee, said in July that when the General Assembly this January “any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been shattered.”

White was clearly bothered by Arnn’s comments. Yet he acknowledged this week that the Legislature wouldn’t be able to stop charter schools from being approved by the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which was set up by his legislation.

“I made that comment then because … if you have anything in committee and you’ve got a negative comment, nobody wants to touch it. So that’s where I was coming from,” White said.

In July, he claimed that if any Hillsdale bill were to come before the Legislature in 2023 it would be rejected. Still, even before the Hillsdale affiliate withdrew, he wasn’t ready to sponsor legislation to change the process.

“I have a lot of confidence in the ability of the management of the charter commission as well as the commissioners, and so right now it’s hands-off. I think they have great ability to make the best decisions based on what is best for charters in Tennessee,” he said.

White noted the only thing he said to commissioners was that he wanted them to remain “independent” and use their set of state standards to determine whether the charter should be allowed to operate. 

Under the law White passed at Gov. Lee’s request in 2019, the commission can overrule a school board’s decision to turn down a charter application, an authority that drew renewed scrutiny among legislators.

Under the same law, school boards either oversee those charters – once the state commission approves them – or they can leave them under state oversight.

White was neutral on whether appointments to the nine-member charter commissioner should be divided between the governor and House and Senate speakers. Under current law, the governor appoints all members and the Legislature confirms them, leading to complaints that the panel will be a rubber stamp for the governor’s preference.

Who makes the decisions

State law requires that five of the nine commission members live in school districts with charter schools, and the makeup is heavy with charter supporters.

Commission members are: from West Tennessee, Terence Patterson, board chairman of KIPP Memphis charter organization, Chris Richards, a retired executive vice president of FedEx Corp., and Derwin Sisnett, co-founder of Gestalt Community Schools, a charter management group in Memphis; from Middle Tennessee, Dave Hanson, who has served on the boards of Valor Collegiate Academies, Tennessee for America Nashville-Chattanooga, and The Phoenix Club, Wendy Tucker, a Nashville attorney who works as director of policy at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, and Jamie Woodson, a former Republican state senator and former executive chairman of State Collaborative on Reforming Education; and from East Tennessee, Alan Levine, president and CEO of Ballad Health, Eddie Smith, a former Republican House member who has served on several education boards, and Chairman Tom Griscom, former publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and White House communications director under former President Ronald Reagan.

"Number One, I don't like charter schools." Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston (Photo: John Partipilo)
“Number One, I don’t like charter schools.” Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston (Photo: John Partipilo)

Griscom told the Legislature’s Joint Government Operations Subcommittee this week the charter applicants will be looked at “independently and individually.”

The Public Charter School Commission has become yet another state-run school district to some degree, overseeing nine charter schools, five in Shelby and four in Davidson. The commission has 14 full-time staff members, according to Executive Director Stovall.

Despite trying to come off as even-handed, Stovall and Griscom didn’t exactly impress Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, or Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, who said they disagree with the commission’s ability to override county school board decisions.

“That’s not good,” Crowe said, noting each local school district should have authority over schools, not the charter commission.

The regret was palpable for Calfee, who voted for the bill in 2019, and Crowe, who was present not voting on the matter three years ago.

Calfee, who is leaving the Legislature in November, was a tad more pointed, as previously reported by the Tennessee Lookout.

“Number one, I don’t like charter schools. I’m all about public education, and when you can come in and override our elected officials, I don’t like it,” Calfee said. 

Stovall, however, pointed out that of the three appeals the commission has heard, one was turned down. She said she could come back and “share” the percentage of the 10 the commission is set to hear over the next two weeks.

Odds are Crowe and Calfee won’t be happy, despite the elimination of Hillsdale.

Quote of the week?We really need folks to come back to reality. There are some real, by God, crises out there in the world. Despite what folks are reading on 4chan or their Q newsletters, this litter box thing ain’t real. It’s like librarian groomers and IRS agents w/AR15s. It’s make-believe.” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, on the alleged “furry” crisis

TennCare flap quietens

House members of the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Review Committee were set to be asked this week to vote against extension of four TennCare contracts for enrollees who are eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare, according to sources.

They were going to request the Fiscal Review Committee to postpone the matter until after the 2023 legislative session, likely to provide a path for other insurance companies. That’s Latin for, “We’re going to pass a bill that will take care of this.”

Just a month or so ago, House Speaker Cameron Sexton requested the matter be delayed. His spokesman said this week he didn’t ask anyone to postpone the matter again.

During the 2022 session, Sexton and some lawmakers wanted to give Centene, the nation’s largest managed care organization, another shot at a TennCare contract, even when it failed to win a bid. Sexton said he wanted to create more transparency in the process and keep enrollees with their insurors.

But word came down before the latest vote that Fiscal Review didn’t have the authority to continue postponing, in part because that decision could be overridden at a higher level.

Ultimately, they threw up their hands and said we’ll deal with it later.

The contracts are with AMERIGROUP Tennessee Inc., UnitedHealthcare Community Plan, BlueCare Tennessee and Volunteer State Health Plan (TennCare Select).

Centene has spent more than $1 billion to settle Medicaid lawsuits nationwide. But legislation sponsored earlier this year would have made sure enrollees would be able to stick with Centene and two others that didn’t receive a new contract, Cigna and Humana.

Centene was removed from the House version of the bill at the last minute, and a study was to be done. But the Senate version of the bill never advanced.

Dogs and cats sleeping together

Rep. Mary Littleton and Sen. Janice Bowling howled this week in a Joint Government Operations meeting about “furries” in schools, a purported situation in which students are identifying as cats and snakes (how many snakes have fur?) and using in litter boxes (haven’t seen many snakes in litter boxes either).

Littleton, R-Dickson, and Bowling, R-Tullahoma, questioned Public Charter School Commission Executive Director Stovall about whether “furries” are being allowed in its charter schools.

No. This is not your child. (Photo: Ralph Arvesen/Flickr)
No. This is not your child. (Photo: Ralph Arvesen/Flickr)

The answer was no, which must be justification for turning every school in the state over to charters. 

“We’re hearing that’s a problem across the state now, so I think it’s a big problem,” Littleton said.

Bowling said she was getting reports about it in her rural districts and claimed schools aren’t disclosing that they’re allowing children who identify as snakes and cats to use litter boxes.

“Obviously, it’s very disruptive to the learning process. If a child has that much of a self-identity issue, they probably need a different environment, and it’s creating a lot of confusion, a lot of anxiety with the children who are boys and girls,” Bowling said.

Bowling said she’s hoping for a “reawakening” in the Department of Education to “recognize” it needs to give better guidance to “public schools.” Then, she went on a tangent about how charter schools are public schools, which is true mainly because they receive tax dollars to operate.

Count me in as being confused. Being out of touch with today’s youth, I had to ask a colleague to give me an explanation on “furries.” 

I was still uncertain until I read a Reuters fact-check report that said children identifying as animals is “not a genuine phenomenon.” We do have something called a “therian,” which is a person who feels they’ve been reincarnated as an animal, a wolf, for example. But that’s not a “furry,” and they don’t use school litter boxes.

This is an actual furry. Also, it is not your child. And it is not in public schools. (Photo: Julian Hodgson/Flickr)
This is an actual furry. Also, it is not your child. And it is not in public schools. (Photo: Julian Hodgson/Flickr)

The ultimate verdict? No evidence.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who weighs in occasionally on Twitter said, “We really need folks to come back to reality. There are some real, by God, crises out there in the world. Despite what folks are reading on 4chan or their Q newsletters, this litter box thing ain’t real. It’s like librarian groomers and IRS agents w/AR15s. It’s make-believe.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said, in a statement: “The department receives frequent communication from school districts and parents with questions and requests for guidance and technical assistance. The topics cover a broad ranges of issues from student discipline to cheerleader tryouts and everything in between. The department has not received communication from parents or school districts on this topic.”


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.