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Hillsdale-linked charter schools draw ire of Tennesseans in latest public comments

Most Tennesseans who wrote to the state about three proposed charter schools tied to Hillsdale College in Michigan said they opposed applications from the charter network, American Classical Education.

Statewide, more than 70% of public commentators wrote that they support local school boards that voted to deny network nominations in Madison, Montgomery and Rutherford counties. And many have said that any decision by a state panel to reverse those rulings would amount to an excess of government power.

Written comments from nearly 400 Tennessee residents, analyzed by Chalkbeat, ran counter to the positions of most of the 39 people who spoke at last week’s time-limited public hearings held in each of the three school districts involved. In-person speaking slots were filled on a first-come, first-served basis, with American Classical supporters registering for the most part and opponents complaining that the process was biased in approving their nominations .

In Rutherford County, where all 13 commentators at a Sept. 14 hearing in Murfreesboro came out in favor of the network’s charter proposal, people who submitted written comments opposed the school with a margin of more than 4 to 1.

Margins were much tighter in Jackson-Madison County, and even tighter in Clarksville-Montgomery County.

Ultimately, all comments submitted in each district will be considered when the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Commission votes Oct. 5 on whether to approve each American Classical application on appeal, said Tess Stovall, executive director of the panel.

“We weigh all comments equally, whether oral or written,” Stovall told reporters after the Rutherford County hearing. Some people “can’t necessarily come here in person, so we’re offering multiple routes.”

The votes will test the independence of the nine panel members, all of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. Lee said he wanted 50 charters tied to Hillsdale in Tennessee and also pushed for a 2019 law creating the appellate body.

Lee and Hillsdale College have been the target of fierce attacks across Tennessee since June, when a leaked video showed the governor seated quietly at a private reception in Franklin, south of Nashville, while Hillsdale President Larry Arnn said teachers are “educated in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the world. country”. Lee declined to disavow Arnn’s comments or end any charter “partnership” with the small, conservative Christian college in south-central Michigan.

The college’s spin-off charter has also been criticized for its approach to civic education and its program of 1776that glorifies the nation’s founders and downplays America’s role in slavery.

Both issues were raised by many Tennesseans who wrote to the commission during the week after a public hearing in their district.

Arnn “showed complete disrespect for educators and arrogant ignorance about the art of teaching and learning,” said Rebecca Oldham, a mother who is an assistant professor of child development. Child and Family Studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

“I do not support any Murfreesboro institution that collaborates with him or his college, or use his propaganda that masquerades as a ‘program,'” Oldham continued.

Patricia Craig, who identified as a concerned Madison County citizen and 85-year-old history student, expressed concern about Hillsdale’s selective view of events that are presented through an ideological lens instead of a full story based on facts.

“This is a veiled attempt to present an agenda that further crushes poorer children (and) children of color and promotes only one worldview,” Craig wrote.

Many supporters, meanwhile, praised the “classical” school model that emphasizes math, science, literature and history, as well as the study of Latin, music and the arts. American Classical also promises instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.

“Why not try this program? writes Peg Ramsay of Jackson. “Madison County has gone through several superintendents with little academic achievement.”

“I think a classical academy would make our community a better place to live and raise a family,” said Rutherford County parent and teacher Stuart Leach. “While not perfect, our history is full of inspiring men and women to learn from.”

Other proponents argued that network charter schools would improve public education by increasing competition and adding class seats in crowded districts. But most just wanted more public education choices for families.

“The Jackson-Madison area desperately needs another educational option, especially for low-income students, because the only other options are expensive private schools or homeschooling, which can also be cost prohibitive,” wrote Trudy Abel, a retired university professor.

Opponents have argued that control of local education is a bigger issue.

The three locally elected school boards voted overwhelmingly to reject the Hillsdale Group’s nominations.

“The problem with a charter school in Rutherford County is not about school choice, but rather about the lack of ownership of our schools,” said Laura Roland, a teacher at Central Magnet School. “As a teacher for 20 years, I find it disturbing that those who are not in the trenches make assumptions about what is really going on in our schools.”

Others feared that public charter schools — which are privately run and taxpayer funded — were diverting money from traditional public schools. And many noted that none of American Classical’s applications included a concrete plan to serve students with disabilities.

“Instead of a charter school to help some children, use this money to go to the public schools you already have for the benefit of ALL children,” wrote Lindsey White, also of Rutherford County.

Commission staff use the same system developed by the state rating criteria because districts used to decide whether nominations met Tennessee standards for academics, operations, and finances, as well as whether proposals were in the best interests of the students, their school district, and their community . Determining the level of local public support is part of this process.

To read all public comments, 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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