Hillsdale Group Charter School Appeals Launched in Tennessee

Promising a rigorous classical education that also produces “good people of good character,” leaders of a network of charter schools launched by Michigan-based Hillsdale College appeared before a Tennessee panel on Wednesday to challenge the rejection of their candidacy by a local school board.

But the head of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission had plenty of questions for the charter group, American Classical Education, and its CEO, Joel Schellhammer — particularly about the change in the composition of its board of trustees, which removed some officials of Hillsdale and now has four Tennesseans.

Among them: Why has the network not kept Rutherford County schools informed of changes as part of the application and review process?

Tess Stovall, the commission’s executive director, also asked how the group determined there was enough parental and community support to open a mainstream charter school in the suburban neighborhood south of Nashville. According to the network’s app, only a fifth of the 1,711 respondents were residents of Rutherford County, and it was unclear how many of those were parents of prospective college students.

Joel Schellhammer is CEO of American Classical Education, a charter network launched by Hillsdale College.

Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat

“The survey was just one part of a multi-pronged approach to gauge whether there would be interest and demand in Rutherford County for a school like this,” Schellhammer replied. He added that demographic trends and talking with “many first-hand parents…has given us a lot more confidence.”

Exchanges with Schellhammer at the first of three Hillsdale-related public hearings this week highlighted the issues Stovall is considering before making recommendations to his panel. On Oct. 5, the commission will vote to allow American Classical to open the first trio of its planned 50 charter schools in Tennessee — taxpayer-funded schools that Governor Bill Lee wants, but not local school boards.

While people for and against Hillsdale Schools showed up at the hearing to speak, only supporters had a chance to share their comments in person. The others will have to submit their position in writing.

A second public hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Madison County, west Tennessee, and a third Friday in Montgomery County, north of Nashville.

The appeals panel’s rulings will test the independence of its nine members, all of whom were appointed by the Republican governor, who also pushed for a 2019 law creating the panel with the aim of opening up more high quality charter schools.

In January, Lee announced he wanted to “partner” with Hillsdale, a small conservative Christian college in south-central Michigan, to bring his approach to civics to Tennessee, including his 1776 curriculum that glorifies the nation’s founders and minimizes America’s role in slavery. . This partnership turned out to be Lee’s invitation to Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn to bring his classic charter school model to Tennessee.

But that was before Nashville-based WTVF aired its bombshell report in June showing Lee sitting quietly at a Hillsdale-sponsored event in Franklin, Tennessee, while Arnn mocked teacher training programs. Teachers, Arnn said in the hidden camera recording, are “educated in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” The remarks drew public outrage from educators and Lee’s own allies in the Republican Party, but the governor refused to repudiate Arnn’s words.

In its written appeals, American Classical accused the denial of its requests by the Rutherford and Madison County school boards of being “colored by politics.”

Stovall, who led the appeal hearing, asked the Rutherford County review team leader whether his work had been influenced by Arnn’s high-profile comments about teachers.

A woman speaks on a podium at a large meeting filled with offices and people.

Caitlin Bullard, School Choice Coordinator for Rutherford County Schools, speaks at a public hearing on the Hillsdale Charter School bid.

Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat

Caitlin Bullard, the district’s school choice coordinator, said her committee conducted a “politically neutral” review that followed the state’s rubric for scoring charter applications. She added that all scores were returned before Arnn’s comments aired.

“However, at the end of the day, our (school) board does not operate in a vacuum,” Bullard said of his July 18 vote rejecting the charter application. “The comments that were made were problematic in the operation of our district, both in terms of our district mission and our support…to our teachers.”

Bullard said the board considered Arnn’s remarks “to protect the public interest.” But she pointed out that American Classical’s proposal, while acceptable to its financial plan, fell short of operations and academics. Most troubling, she said, was the lack of a concrete plan to serve students with disabilities.

“We believe that a school that is not prepared to serve special populations is not ready to serve all learners,” Bullard said.

American Classical Leaders did not raise this concern during the hearing, but pointed to Rutherford County’s growing population and lack of a public classical school option as reasons for opening its proposed school of 340 students.

“What we are trying to achieve is a school that trains students in virtue, which results in high academic achievement and the strong moral formation required for responsible citizenship,” said Phillip Schwenk, principal founder of a classical school in northwest Ohio. on behalf of American Classical.


Michael Dewey was a supporting speaker for the American Classical Academy at a public hearing on the Hillsdale-related charter school’s bid.

Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat

Michael Dewey, a local realtor with four school-age children, said his family had tried public schools, homeschooling and a military boarding school, but would welcome a public charter school like American Classical that incorporates a liberal arts and science education. with instruction in the principles of moral character.

“Parents want options for their children. It really is that simple,” Dewey said during the hearing.

Chris Littleton, a father of three school-aged children, said he observed a lack of rigor in the education of his children in Rutherford County schools when they learned online during the pandemic. Now he wants to go somewhere else with his tax money.

“I don’t care about Hillsdale or Arnn,” Littleton said. “As a parent, I focus on one thing: a good education for my children.”

Every resident who spoke at the two-hour hearing spoke in favor of the American Classical as all 15 available slots were taken before opponents could register, Sienna Holl said. President of the Rutherford County Teachers Group. His organization asked for more speaking time but was refused.

Stovall invited others to submit written comments, which she says will receive the same consideration as those delivered in person. The submission window closes at 1:00 p.m. CT on September 21.

“We’re going to clog their email, we’re going to blow it up, because we have things to say,” said Holl, who also feared the hearing would be held during school hours when teachers couldn’t attend. . “Our school board has done its homework, and if it has deemed the candidacy unsuitable, I think that should be honored.”


Protesters hold signs in support of mainstream public schools ahead of a public hearing in Murfreesboro on the Hillsdale Charter School’s application.

Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat

Before and after the hearing, parents and other residents who supported their local council’s decision gathered outside the central district office to voice their concerns and display signs opposing Hillsdale.

Lea Maitles, who has an 8-year-old son, said American Classical hasn’t addressed any of the district’s concerns about serving children with disabilities.

“I have no confidence that this charter school could even begin to meet my son’s needs,” said Maitles, who lives in Smyrna.

Angela Wynn, a mother of five, worries that American Classical will “whitewash” uncomfortable history lessons.

“It’s a way for them to introduce the American exceptionalism agenda to our district,” said Wynn, who is black. “My kids don’t deserve it, and I need kids who aren’t like mine to understand what happened in the past, so they can understand how we can do better in the future. “

The commission will hold hearings over the next month to consider 13 charter appeals in all. But Hillsdale-related calls are getting the most statewide attention. If approved, American Classical would change the face of Tennessee’s 100+ charter school industry by introducing a different kind of education model and targeting different student demographics.

Jason Martin, the Democratic candidate challenging Lee’s run for a second term, was on hand to show his support for the Rutherford County School Board – and local control of education.

“They reviewed the application using the rubric provided by the state and found it deficient,” Martin said. “Now what we see is an unelected council coming to overthrow it during school hours when education advocates are at work.”

A spokeswoman for the governor did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

To see more details on the appeals, visit the commission’s website.

Marta W. Aldrich is senior correspondent and covers the Chalkbeat Tennessee State House. Contact her at [email protected].

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