TN Charter School board goes split decision on Hillsdale allowing school in Madison, not Maury

The charter commission followed the recommendations of its executive director

By: - October 6, 2023 6:00 am
Supporters of American Classical Education during a Tennessee Public Charter Schools Commission meeting held on Oct. 5, 2023 (Photo: John Partipilo)

Supporters of American Classical Education during a Tennessee Public Charter Schools Commission meeting held on Oct. 5, 2023 (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Charter Commission approved another American Classical Education charter school, reversing a denial by the Jackson-Madison County School Board.

On Thursday the commission voted on charter school appeals in Madison and Maury counties made by American Classical — a charter school chain affiliated with Michigan-based Hillsdale College.

Tess Stovall, the executive director of the charter commission, recommended the board approve the Madison application because the group had already hired a principal and identified an area of town to locate the school. She advised against the Maury County charter because American Classical had yet to specify a location for the school or a leader.

“It was clear they had spent more time in Madison,” Stovall said to the board during the hearing. “The Maury application just wasn’t there yet.”

The board followed Stovall’s advice, voting unanimously to approve the Madison school and unanimously to deny the school’s application in Maury.

In Madison, the school system opposed the charter school, arguing the school would pull $3.56 million annually from its budget.

Charter school funds come from federal, state and local tax dollars based on the number of students they serve.

Madison County’s school system spends around $10,500 per student, and the American Classical’s Madison school could serve up to 340 students.

Most of Tennessee’s charter schools are in Nashville and Memphis. Local districts often oppose charters because of concerns over the fiscal impact.

Tennessee Charter Commission Executive Director Tess Stovall, front, addresses members of the commission during a meeting on Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Hillsdale successful in round two

The Madison school is the second American Classical school approved after the Rutherford County School Board greenlighted a charter in its county earlier this year.

American Classical’s journey in Tennessee started in 2022 when Gov. Bill Lee announced plans for the charter chain at his State of the State address.

Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn had cultivated a relationship with Lee over the years, which included the governor visiting the conservative college.

Arnn has deep ties to the conservative education movement and spearheaded the 1776 Commission established by former President Donald Trump. The federal commission created the 1776 curriculum, which was established to counter the 1619 curriculum, a new teaching program based on the 1619 project which called for a more prominent discussion of race and slavery as the founding principles in U.S. history.

American Classical applied to open schools in five Tennessee counties in 2022, but local school boards denied them in each case.

During the local approval process, a video surfaced of Arnn appearing on stage with Lee insulting teachers, saying they were “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges.”

Lawmakers from both parties criticized the comments.

Arnn refused to backtrack but clarified his statements were a criticism of the educational teaching establishment.

American Classical started the process in 2022 to appeal its local denials to the Tennessee Charter Commission but withdrew at the last minute.

State Lawmakers created the charter commission in 2021 as the final decision on all charter school applications. Over the years, the charter school application process transformed from a local school board decision to one in which the state board of education had the final say.

The charter commission — whose nine members are appointed by Gov. Bill Lee — took this authority away from the education board and created a new department.

American Classical returned this year with five more applications and was denied by four school boards. The group declined to appeal denials in Montgomery and Robertson counties.

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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.