Tennessee School Boards and Unions Go Up Against Hillsdale-Affiliated Charter Schools - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Tennessee School Boards and Unions Go Up Against Hillsdale-Affiliated Charter Schools
Hillsdale College (WOOD TV 8/YouTube)

Three Tennessee school boards denied the application of the American Classical Academy, a K-12 charter school system affiliated with Hillsdale College that provides students with a classic liberal arts education. The American Classical Academy alleges that these decisions are politically motivated and based on its ties to Hillsdale, which is Christian and conservative, as well as comments made by Hillsdale’s president, Larry Arnn.

The American Classical Academy filed appeals with the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, a group appointed by the governor. In two statements of intent, the American Classical Academy said that the Rutherford and Madison school boards did not “keep politics out of the process” because they did not consider the merits of its application but rather the political and religious views of Hillsdale’s president and the American Classical Academy’s board members.

The charter school system argues that its affiliation with Hillsdale “has nothing to do with the legal requirements or best practices” of approving a charter school. Furthermore, these school districts’ decisions “could be construed” as violating American Classical Academy board members’ freedom of association, the constitutional right to gather and share beliefs with like-minded people.

The school boards’ decisions are the latest battle in Tennessee’s education wars. Amid an ongoing effort to expand charter schools, teachers unions and left-leaning officials are pushing back with messaging campaigns, lobbying, and other efforts.

The school boards’ criticisms ultimately stem from the attacks on Arnn.

The school boards’ decisions came following the leak of a video showing Arnn disparaging American teachers. “The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said in June at a reception with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. “You will see how education destroys generations of people,” he continued. “It’s devastating. It’s like the plague.”

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest union for school faculty and staff, and several Tennessee school districts condemned Arnn’s comments.

“I think it’s very sad that a person putting himself as a representative for education would be so critical to teachers as a whole,” Kent Griffy, a board member for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School District, told The American Spectator.

Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats released a statement criticizing Arnn and Lee, who avoided speaking publicly on Arnn’s comments for nearly three weeks.

“Tennessee educators worked tirelessly through the past three school years to keep their students engaged, safe and healthy during a global pandemic. Many did so at the expense of their own health and wellbeing,” Coats said. “To now witness their governor stand silently alongside out-of-state privatizers as they are cruelly and unfairly attacked feels like a punch to the gut.”

The Tennessee Education Association cast Arnn’s comments as lies meant to further the cause of charter schools and harm public schools. In an Aug. 2 Facebook post, the union connected Arnn’s comments with what it said is a larger attack on public schools. “We’ll keep fighting and we won’t rest until the entire charter industry is on the run,” the union’s chief lobbyist, Jim Wrye, wrote. Similar posts used the hashtag “#lies2privatize.” The union also added a form to its website to ask elected officials “to stand with public schools and call out the lies from the charter school industry.”

The Tennessee Education Association condemned charter schools long before Arnn’s comments. It sounded the alarm over “privatizing” education as early as 2010. Its advocacy even extends beyond state borders, as it submitted an amicus brief in the 2020 Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a landmark school choice ruling. According to its amicus brief, it believes taxpayer dollars should not fund charter schools:

“Public education entails the provision of common experiences under conditions consistent with equal protection, due process, free speech, and religious neutrality,” bedrock American values preserved in our Constitution. The consumer-based systems of private education are not guaranteed to preserve these societal values, and in the case of religious schools may very well be contrary to these values.

The Tennessee Education Association’s local chapters are also vocal critics of school choice and the attempt to bring the American Classical Academy to Tennessee. The Rutherford Education Association repudiated Lee for his relationship with Arnn. The Tennessee Education Association’s Clarksville-Montgomery chapter endorsed some of the board members who voted against the American Classical Academy’s application. Its Facebook page even asked voters to not “sell out public schools.”

In recent years, the Tennessee Education Association has become a more explicitly political organization. The president’s bio describes the union as “a group of educators who refuse to sit complacent, as challenges in education are mounting around us or for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequalities through racial and social injustices.” Coats also asked Lee to support legislation to limit the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission’s authority and keep schools like the American Classical Academy out of Tennessee.

School boards echoed the Tennessee Education Association’s response, signing resolutions condemning Arnn and his comments. In Hamilton County, a Tennessee Education Association representative appeared at the board meeting which discussed the resolution. Board member Rhonda Thurman said that it’s “all about the teachers union not wanting charter schools.” Thurman said that she would not sign the resolution and that Arnn “was referring to teachers unions, who she says focus on promoting a political agenda rather than on education.”

Madison County, one of the districts that denied the American Classical Academy’s application, passed a resolution stating that it is not “in the best interest” to expose students to a school with ties to Arnn because of his “racially insensitive” comments and views towards public school teachers. (Arnn is critical of diversity requirements in hiring, student demographics, and instruction.)

In denying the American Classical Academy’s application, school districts point to reasons beyond Arnn, justifying their decision on the basis of the Tennessee Department of Education’s rubric used to evaluate charter applications. “The major reason that American Classical Academy ultimately did not meet the standards came down to two major areas — facilities planning and waiver request,” Elizabeth Vincent, a review committee member for the Clarksville-Montgomery School District, told The American Spectator.

A presentation by the review committee lists operational concerns, including the lack of a facility, insufficient safety and security and health plans, and disagreement over the waivers that the American Classical Academy requested in its amended application. The American Classical Academy’s waiver requests included foregoing longevity pay to provide bonuses based on performance and using its own materials in place of textbooks approved by the board of education. Summary reports by Rutherford and Madison counties list similar concerns, adding questions about the American Classical Academy’s ability to educate special populations (e.g., English language learners).

In the American Classical Academy’s appeals to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, it lists its objections to the school board votes in Rutherford, Madison, and Montgomery counties. Its amended application includes a plan for educating special populations, but the review committee’s presentation during the Rutherford board meeting claimed that “there’s a lot of comments about intent, but intent doesn’t equal a plan.” The American Classical Academy requested waivers to deliver a classical education model to students and calls the concerns over waivers “unfounded.” It said that its academic plan, which articulates the classical education model, meets the standards of the Tennessee Department of Education. According to the American Classical Academy, its waivers are typical of charter schools in Tennessee.

The American Classical Academy also defends its plans for a facility, pointing out that Montgomery County’s review committee recommended approving another charter school that made “significantly less progress in identifying a facility.”

The school boards’ criticisms ultimately stem from the attacks on Arnn. Rutherford, for example, said that “political action, alone, is in no way disqualifying,” but “the comments and circumstances surrounding Hillsdale and Dr. Larry Arnn provide a higher degree of scrutiny on the balance of ideas and representation on the [American Classical Academy] Board.”

Further criticisms point out Arnn and Hillsdale’s Christian and conservative worldview. The superintendent’s office in Madison County listed the ability to select a “diverse workforce” and “diverse student body” as some of its concerns with the American Classical Academy. Diversity of thought was an issue with the review committee in Rutherford County. When the school board voted to deny the American Classical Academy’s amended application, Dr. Kelly Chastain, the school choice/charter school coordinator, presented recommendations calling the American Classical Academy’s ties with Hillsdale “problematic.” The review committee took issue with the fact that the American Classical Academy’s application mentioned a “philosophical and moral alignment.”

Rutherford’s report reiterated its political concerns with the American Classical Academy: “the applicant’s indisputable ties with Hillsdale College, a self-described conservative, Christian institution,” “language subtleties [that] suggest a mission and vision targeting only specific philosophical beliefs,” and “evidence of a politically motivated mission.”

Because Tennessee leaves charter school approval at the discretion of school districts, they can deny applications for any reason. Chase Ingle, director of external affairs for the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, he answered The American Spectator‘s questions regarding whether a school board can deny a charter school application even if it meets state standards.

“School Board policies will vary from district to district,” Ingle said. “That would be something that the local school boards could answer.”

School boards do, in fact, deny applications even when review committees recommend approval. (This is the case with Oxton Academy, the other charter school denied by the Clarksville-Montgomery School Board.) As the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission reviews the American Classical Academy’s appeals, its members will consider the allegation that school boards failed to “keep politics out of the process,” arbitrarily using the rubric to cover biases against charter schools or a school’s “specific philosophical beliefs.”

The Tennessee Public Charter School Commission will conduct public hearings in September that could overturn the board votes in Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford counties. If the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission overturns the school boards’ decisions, then the American Classical Academy can move forward with opening its schools in Montgomery, Rutherford, and Madison counties. The Tennessee Public Charter School Commission’s decision is final, but if it upholds the school boards’ decisions, the American Classical Academy might have a legal case. It could sue the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission and school districts for denying its applications because of its ties to a Christian conservative college.

Based on Carson, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission and school board decisions might violate the American Classical Academy’s freedom of speech and religion.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision hints at how it might make its case. In Carson v. Makin, the court ruled that Maine cannot exclude religious schools in providing tuition assistance for students to attend private schools. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”

An EdSource article quotes University of California, Davis law school professor Aaron Tang on the implications of the Carson decision. Tang says that Carson could require states to fund religious charter schools. According to Tang, “a court might say there would be a free exercise of religion if a state denied funding because of the religious character of the organization operating the school.”

Based on Carson, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission and school board decisions might violate the American Classical Academy’s freedom of speech and religion. The Tennessee Public Charter School Commission decision is potentially discriminatory if Tennessee allows left-leaning charter schools but excludes right-leaning, Christian ones. Like the religious schools in Carson, the American Classical Academy could argue that it met eligibility requirements yet was excluded because of its religious undertones. Furthermore, discrimination based on the American Classical Academy’s politics would also violate its First Amendment rights.

Though the school districts’ scorn over the American Classical Academy’s philosophy implies a desire to keep religion and politics out of publicly funded schools, there are currently left-leaning charter school systems in Tennessee. One is RePublic Schools, which shared a blog post arguing that education should be political. The author wrote that during the presidency of Donald Trump, “resistance took on urgent, even life-or-death, importance.” Additionally, one of its core values is to “lead for racial equity.” Another charter school expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice in its culture statement.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Education Association and its operatives repudiate the American Classical Academy for its ties to Hillsdale. However, Dr. Kathleen O’Toole, the assistant provost for K-12 education for Hillsdale College, says that the American Classical Academy’s association with Hillsdale is misleading.

“We provide free advice in the form of conferences, curriculum, board training, and teacher training,” O’Toole told The American Spectator. “None of the schools we work with are the result of Hillsdale College going into a particular area.”

The governance and operations of these schools, including hiring and firing decisions, are usually overseen by local boards of citizens or charter management organizations, nonprofit entities that provide the services of a school district.

A Slate article accused Hillsdale of “an education takeover in the state,” pointing to its 1776 curriculum, which any educator can access for free on Hillsdale’s website. The curriculum includes history and civics lessons based on the premise that “America is an exceptionally good country.”

But voters, who overwhelmingly favor school choice, don’t currently have the option to learn about American exceptionalism. Instead, the Tennessee Education Association’s influence results in school boards that say yea or nay to charter schools based on their politics or simply an overall opposition to school choice.

O’Toole says that politics should stay out of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission’s decision.

“If applications are being denied, I hope it’s for genuine reasons and not political reasons,” she said.

According to O’Toole, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission decision will answer a question about school choice: “Is this an option that should be presented to parents in Tennessee?”

The Tennessee Education Association and the office of Gov. Lee did not respond for comment.

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