Rutherford Co. School Board approves Hillsdale charter in restricted meeting, other counties say no

American Classical Education, a Hillsdale College-affiliated charter school organization, applied to open charter schools in five Tennesse counties.

By: - May 3, 2023 6:00 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)

Hillsdale College’s American Classical Education charter school received the go-ahead from the Rutherford County School Board in a meeting where public comments were restricted and the board refused to hear a negative recommendation from its own charter committee. 

Shelia Bratton, a Rutherford School Board member, called the move not to hear staff recommendations on the charter “nefarious” and out of step with past precedent. 

“I want to go on record that I vehemently oppose this,” said Bratton during the 25-minute meeting. “We have always had a presentation from the committee giving us the pros and cons.”

The Rutherford application was one of five charter school proposals by the Hillsdale group in Tennessee this year. The school also applied to open charter school in Madison, Maury, Montgomery and Robertson counties, with each denying the applications. 

American Classical Education is the K-12 arm of Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school based in Michigan. Last year, the group applied to open charter schools in Montgomery, Madison and Rutherford counties, with all three school boards rebuffing the school after controversial comments by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn.

If American Classical Education can fill all 690 seats in the recently-approved Rutherford County charter school, the Rutherford County public schools system stands to lose $6.6 million annually.

While on stage with Gov. Bill Lee at an event in Middle Tennesse, Arnn said teachers were trained “in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

The school appealed its charter denials to the Tennessee Charter Commission, but ultimately it withdrew them days before the commission was set to vote.

In the year between applications, elections on the Rutherford County school board moved it in a rightward and pro-charter direction.

Tammy Sharpe, the Rutherford County School board chair said, she favored the new charter because she thought it would alleviate overcrowding throughout the district.

“There are more things to consider than if you don’t like the curriculum or what Larry Arnn said,” Sharpe added. 

Adding a charter school could help alleviate overcrowding in the short term, but it will impact Rutherford County Schools’ budget in the long run. Under the state’s new funding formula, money follows the student. In Rutherford, the state gives $7,180 per student to the school district, while local tax dollars are roughly $2,320 per student. 

Assuming American Classical can recruit enough students for all 690 potential seats, the Rutherford School system could lose $6.6 million annually.

For American Classical, the approval is a victory for the charter network trying to gain a foothold in the state. In the past, Arnn said the plan was to open 50 Hillsdale affiliated charter schools in Tennessee. 

“This is a victory for more than 7,000 families who have said they want a classical curriculum option in Tennessee,” said Dolores Gresham, an American Classical Education board member, in a statement. 

Madison or Montgomery? Confusion over application

While Rutherford County Schools were open to the American Classical school, the other four school boards where they applied were not. 

Jackson-Madison County School Board Charter Review Committee found the application filed to it referenced Montgomery County on several occasions when it likely meant to say Madison County. 

American Classical Education application in to the Jackson-Madison County School Board

This, along with concerns about the school staffing plan, a lack of a secured school building and questions over the long-term fiscal health of the American Classical, led the Jackson board to reject the application. 

Charter review committees in Maury, Montgomery and Robertson also recommended their school board deny the charter school application over similar concerns. 

American Classical can appeal their denials to the Tennessee Charter Commission, which could reverse the local decision. The state charter commission often overturns local rejections, but not always. 

Phillip Schwenk, Vice President of Schools for American Classical Education, said in a statement, the charter network is still evaluating its next steps. 

“It is evident to all of us that these different communities have an interest in and local demand for public classical charter schools,” Schwenk said. “We will make a decision in the coming weeks.

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.