A four-piece mailer sent to households across the state from Hillsdale College in 2022.
State legislators believe Hillsdale College-affiliated American Classical Education saw inevitable rejection when it abruptly withdrew charter school appeals last week.
Public sentiment turned against the Michigan-based private Christian college in midsummer when its president was secretly recorded at a Franklin event saying teachers are educated in the “dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” He also said Hillsdale would prove in Tennessee anyone can be a teacher.
But American Classical Education, a Hillsdale offshoot, pulled appeals from consideration before the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission less than a week before they were to be considered. The appeals were necessary because its applications were turned down by Rutherford, Madison and Montgomery county school boards.
“Obviously, they’d had trouble at the local level. … I suspect they had a sense that the concerns raised at the local level would probably filter up as well,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.
Charter schools are officially considered part of the public school systems in Tennessee, but they are run by private organizations and receive public funding from the state and local level. The state commission is to consider three other appeals Wednesday at 1 p.m. and seven more next week.
The withdrawal could have been an effort to cut down on embarrassment at the state level. The Legislature also could have come back and cut into the commission’s authority if it approved American Classical’s applications.
During at least one public hearing, Public Charter School Director Tess Stovall raised questions about the change in membership of American Classical Education’s board of directors in which it added several people from Tennessee to burnish its credentials. Stovall pointed out the commission would be put in the position of approving an agreement with a new board that didn’t file the application.
When Stovall raised that question, an American Classical official told her the commission should worry about the board’s makeup later.
Sen. Ferrell Haile, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said Tuesday it was “obvious” what caused American Classical to withdraw.
“It was the public uproar over the comments of the president of that institution,” said Haile, R-Gallatin. “I think there’s an overreaction there. . . His comments were completely out of order and out of place, but I think that there is value in the curriculum that they do.”
Haile noted Hillsdale isn’t a charter school but provides curriculum and support for a charter school network, and he added, “I think there’s value there that we’re going to miss out on. But that’s the way politics is sometimes. Sometimes you cut off your nose to spite your face.”
Haile said he has no insight into the thought process of American Classical yet said his assumption is that the “uproar didn’t die down” and the charter organization “didn’t see a path forward at this time.”
Former state Sen. Dolores Gresham, a board member of American Classical, claimed that parents wouldn’t be able to drive to Nashville for hearings during fall break this week before the Public Charter School Commission, which turned down a request to delay the matter because it would have gone past the 75-day deadline for approval.
Gresham, who chaired the Senate Education Committee during her term in office, didn’t rule out a possible return of the organization to Tennessee where Hillsdale President Larry Arnn said he planned to open 50 charter schools and Gov. Bill Lee said he wanted 100 of the schools.
“We believe, with complete conviction, that there will be many future opportunities in Tennessee as there are in most of America,” Gresham said in a statement. “The nationwide movement away from monopolistic public schools is an expression of the fact that parents have a natural love and, therefore, a natural say over how and what their children are taught in school.”
Gresham contended that was proven by the parents who spoke before Public Charter School Commission staff at recent hearings
“It remains a much stronger claim than the claim of the bureaucracy that continues to stifle quality public education options for families. After all, parents are the purest form of ‘local control’ when it comes to their child’s education,” she said in the statement.
Questions have been raised, though, about Hillsdale’s curriculum and whether it distorts the importance of Black Americans’ historical contributions and Martin Luther King’s contention that the force of law should be used to back the civil rights movement.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said Tuesday she has concerns about the college’s 1776 curriculum, a Hillsdale teaching guide prompted by former President Donald Trump to focus on the achievements of the nation’s founders and offset a 1619 curriculum that gave the treatment of Black Americans a more central role in American history.
Phil Schwenk, an American Classical principal, issued a statement previously about misconceptions about its curriculum, which makes two main points, first that the nation wasn’t founded on racist principles or to defend slavery yet it recognizes “our failings and the pains of civil strife, war and the nation’s ongoing journey to form a more perfect union.”
Schwenk notes that American Classical teachers “that slavery was an evil practice in America and that the Civil War was fought over the issue.”
The nationwide movement away from monopolistic public schools is an expression of the fact that parents have a natural love and, therefore, a natural say over how and what their children are taught in school.
– Delores Gresham, former state senator and board member for American Classical Schools
Instead of relating history, though, Hillsdale’s curriculum inserts its own view of the civil rights movements and women’s liberation into the classroom.
Akbari said American Classical’s withdrawal was “appropriate, given their 1776 curriculum, their complete disregard and disdain for teachers as was expressed this summer and then just the rhetoric that’s come out of some of their professors at their college.”
Most importantly, though, the Senate Minority Caucus chair said local school boards rejected the organization’s applications and “unhappiness” expressed by lawmakers that those would be overruled by the Public Charter School Commission, Akbari added.
The General Assembly initially embraced the prospect of Hillsdale bringing charter schools to Tennessee, Akbari said, but “backlash” built over the summer, and the withdrawal appears to be a “culmination” of that, said, based on their curriculum, rhetoric and “how they were trying to push their way into Tennessee.”
State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said Hillsdale and American Classical saw that “Tennessee, even though it’s a conservative state, is not radical in that sense.” Thus, they realized it wouldn’t be a good time to keep pushing their appeals.
“I would hope they would not attempt to come back again,” Hakeem added.
Hakeem is satisfied, nevertheless, with how charter schools in Chattanooga are working, saying their “quality staff” have succeeded in helping students who couldn’t “move forward fast enough.”
Hakeem, a member of the House Education Administration Committee and an advocate for public schools, also said he is concerned about the makeup of the Public Charter School Commission, which has several members who are involved in charter school organizations and SCORE, which is a major charter school proponent in the state.
It is unclear, though, whether legislation will be proposed to change the board or its process.
Lundberg said he believes the Public Charter School Commission is an “independent” body even though its nine members are appointed by the governor. He sees no need to change the charter school application process or to remove final authority from the state commission.
The State School Board previously held the final decision on charter school applicants that were turned down by local boards. Even Akbari said she was uncomfortable with that process and tended to support creation of the charter commission.
Haile noted the state commission needs people with charter school expertise, but he also pointed out that local boards feel “threatened” by charters and are “very protective.”
“Maybe this provides a balance,” he said.
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