In the last month, three proposed charter schools affiliated with the conservative Michigan-based Hillsdale College were rejected by Tennessee school districts. The denials come on the heels of insulting remarks about teachers made by Larry Arnn, Hillsdale’s president and an ally of Gov. Bill Lee. The fallout could have broader implications for the future of charters in the state.
A secret recording is leaked
It all started when Gov. Bill Lee announced a partnership with Hillsdale during his 2022 State of the State address back in January.
“For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty,” Lee said. “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.”
Hillsdale was supposed to provide curriculum and training to charter schools that taught what Lee called “informed patriotism.” The governor said he hoped to open upward of 50 new charters with Hillsdale’s “1776 Curriculum,” which has come under scrutiny for whitewashing Civil Rights history.
Soon after, the Hillsdale affiliated charter management organization, American Classical Education, submitted applications to open schools in the Rutherford, Jackson-Madison and Clarksville-Montgomery school districts.
Hillsdale comes under the microscope
But, in June, NewsChannel5 revealed a secret recording of Arnn at a private event in Williamson County.
“Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said, as he sat on a stage with Gov. Lee.
The remarks drew condemnations from both state Republicans and Democrats. The charters partnering with the college were then rejected. The denials were due to the schools not meeting the standards of the individual school districts.
But, some school leaders, like Rutherford’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Kelly Chastain, also expressed concern about the charter’s ties to Hillsdale.
“In terms of teacher recruitment and licensure, with the comments made, that does bring up some reason for concern, in terms of priorities and focus, and how that would fit in with educating our shared students,” Chastain said, in reference to Rutherford Classical Academy.
Separately, an existing charter in Hamilton County using Hillsdale’s curriculum, Ivy Academy’s Skillern Elementary, cut ties with the college.
Founders Classical Academy, a charter that applied to open in Williamson County, also distanced itself from Hillsdale, as reported by The Tennessean. USA Classical Academy withdrew its Williamson County charter application in March, before Arnn’s comments were published.
Appealing to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission
Still, the rejections don’t necessarily mean that American Classical Education charters won’t open.
“When a charter school applies to a local school district, it’s going to automatically go up to the state commission,” explained Amy Frogge, a public education advocate with Pastors for Tennessee Children.
Frogge, who is also a former Nashville school board member, says the appointed members of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission are more charter friendly. They have the power to override local school districts and give charter sponsors 10 days to appeal after being rejected.
“Having the school board there as a step is relatively meaningless,” Frogge said, “because the goal is just to open any charter school that wants to apply.”
Republican lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this year that would’ve made the process even easier, allowing charters to apply directly to the state without any local input. The bill did not advance out of committee, but could be reintroduced again in the future.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Lee said his administration doesn’t have authority over charter appeals, and that charters apply “through the same independent, unbiased application process.”
In a separate statement, Hillsdale College said that American Classical Education applied to use the college’s Barney Charter Schools resources, and that the institution doesn’t own or manage any of its affiliated schools. They did not comment on Arnn’s remarks.
For its part, American Classical Education board member Dolores Gresham says they are “disappointed” by the rejections, and are reviewing options to appeal to the state.
“We do not believe that these decisions represent the best interest of the many parents in Rutherford, Montgomery and Madison counties who have voiced their support and strong desire for school choice and a classical school option,” said Gresham.