Hillsdale Circus Comes to Rutherford County

Controversial Michigan-based charter school operator Hillsdale College brought its roadshow to Rutherford County this week and parents and public school advocates spoke out against the school locating in their community.

Nashville’s NewsChannel5 reported on the events surrounding a hearing conducted by the Tennessee State Charter School Commission. While the Rutherford County School Board rejected Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy’s charter application, the school has appealed to the unelected state board to override the local decision. All members of the Commission were appointed by current governor and charter school supporter Bill Lee.

The Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy is asking the commission to overturn the decision by the Rutherford County school board to deny their application for taxpayer funding for their privately operated charter school.

Rutherford County officials argue that the Hillsdale schools do not have a good track record when it comes to students with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged and the lowest performing children.

Here’s what Rutherford County Schools had to say about the Hillsdale application:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1570150496354140168?s=20&t=mssDevQQu2X0qAeSaVtsAg
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What’s the Rush?

Gov. Bill Lee has moved quickly to implement his school voucher scheme as courts have cleared the way for it to start this school year.

So far, though, not many families are expressing serious interest.

The Tennessean reports that as of the first day of school in Memphis and Nashville (the only two districts eligible for vouchers), only 30 applications had been submitted for approval.

As of Monday morning, only 30 families had submitted an actual application, according to information from Department of Education spokesperson Brian Blackley. The department received applications from 40 schools, he said, noting that application process has closed.

While Lee has claimed that several thousand families want the vouchers, that has not yet been borne out in the application process.

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$26 Million Harm

Voucher case proceeds despite imminent harm to Memphis, Nashville

A three-judge panel on Friday declined to stop Gov. Bill Lee’s rushed implementation of a school voucher scheme in Memphis and Nashville.

Chalkbeat reports that lawyers for parents opposing the voucher plan had asked the court to halt implementation while their case against vouchers proceeds.

Specifically, lawyers noted that if implementation proceeds, Memphis and Nashville combined could lose up to $26 million in funding this year despite no attendant reduction in costs to operate.

“Nothing requires the state defendants to push this forward at a rocket’s pace after the injunction was lifted, just before the school year started,” said Allison Bussell, Metro Nashville’s associate law director, representing the two local governments.

She argued that allowing the program to start will cause irreparable harm to both districts, which she said stand to lose $26 million this school year if 3,000 students shift from public to private schools — while the districts must maintain and staff the same number of schools. 

A recent article in The Hechinger Report noted that vouchers have not been shown to improve student achievement, and in fact, have in some cases been shown to actually be harmful.

Vouchers are dangerous to American education. They promise an all-too-simple solution to tough problems like unequal access to high-quality schools, segregation and even school safety. In small doses, years ago, vouchers seemed like they might work, but as more states have created more and larger voucher programs, experts like me have learned enough to say that these programs on balance can severely hinder academic growth — especially for vulnerable kids.

So, vouchers not only cost local districts significant money, but they also harm the very students they are intended to help. Nevertheless, Gov. Lee and his allies are persisting with this perilous plan.

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Hillsdale on the March

Despite rhetoric from GOP legislators suggesting that Tennessee will “sever ties” with controversial Hillsdale College, it now appears that all three charter schools with a Hillsdale affiliation are appealing to the State Charter Commission to overturn local school board decisions. If approved, the charter schools would open in Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford counties in 2023.

While I don’t normally do this, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that the Hillsdale charters will all be approved. Believe me, I’d love to write a story about the denial of all three applications. But that won’t happen.

Here’s the deal: When you vote for Bill Lee’s charter commission, you vote to allow Lee to override local school boards and install whatever charter he likes. When you vote to open the door to charters, you vote to erode local control. When you fail to stop Lee’s agreement with Hillsdale during the 2022 legislative session, you have already decided the wishes of your local school board and county commission don’t matter. By supporting Lee’s backdoor privatization agenda, you have told voters in your communities that they don’t matter.

This development is not at all surprising. It is exactly the kind of scheme Bill Lee promised even before he was a candidate for governor back in 2018. It is what his campaign was about. If there was any doubt, he erased it 100% in his 2022 State of the State.

These three counties are not the end. If Lee and his General Assembly allies have their way, there will be 50 or more Hillsdale charters in communities across the state. Vouchers, too, will take public dollars and funnel them to private schools.

This has been the plan all along, and Bill Lee is executing that plan no matter what he says in the face of pressure from reporters.

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So Much for Severing Ties

While the controversy over remarks made by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn has Republicans – including Gov. Bill Lee – arguing with Bill Lee’s vision for a Hillsdale takeover of Tennessee public education, that hasn’t stopped Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools from continuing the quest for Tennessee tax dollars.

Phil Williams of NewsChannel5 reports that a Hillsdale-affiliated charter school in Madison County has appealed to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission to overturn the local decision to reject the school:

And, as Williams notes, while the school claims to be “separate” from Hillsdale, the top three proposed board members (Chair, Treasurer, and Secretary) are all current employees of Hillsdale.

I’ve written a lot about Hillsdale, and you can find a good summary of that here.

If, as Gov. Lee most recently said, a group of Hillsdale charter’s is “not his vision,” then now would be a good time for him to speak up and discourage the American Classical Academy from pursuing its appeal.

Of course, he won’t do that. While I’d love to write an article that says the state charter board has denied this appeal (and the likely similar appeals in Montgomery and Rutherford counties), I seriously doubt that will be the case.

Here’s what American Classical has to say about its work in Tennessee:

K-5 CLASSICAL CHARTER SCHOOLS WILL OPEN IN THESE TENNESSEE COUNTIES IN FALL 2023 (emphasis added).

It doesn’t say they’ve applied to open, or that in cooperation with local school boards, they plan to open. It says, “will open.”

And, despite the resounding rejection by local school boards, American Classical is appealing to the state charter commission which could greenlight them to open in 2023.

The American Classical site also includes this note about the schools it (so far) plans to open in 2023:

Montgomery County Classical Academy will begin by serving Kindergarten-Grade 5 with a planned enrollment of 325 students in our first year and add a grade each year until the school can offer a complete K-12 classical education experience.

That same verbiage is included in Madison and Rutherford counties.

Here’s the deal: 2023 is the first year of school funding under the new, TISA model. This means the charters stand to get more money – based of just under $7000 per student PLUS weights for a variety of categories.

Taking it at just the base, though, each of these districts stands to lose nearly $2.3 million in funding in YEAR ONE of the charter school opening.

While it may SEEM that the transfer of students would lead to a corresponding reduction in local costs, it likely won’t. First, it’s not like these students will all come from the same zone or school, so reducing staff at schools is unlikely. At best, you’d be looking at 2-3 teaching position reductions.

The districts, though, will still have the same fixed costs – transportation, building operation and maintenance, etc. They’ll just have about $2 million LESS to use to operate.

Here’s some insight from the costs associated with charters in Nashville:

In short, thanks to Bill Lee’s vision (the one he’s now trying to unsee), these three districts are likely to see a significant funding hit in 2023. And Hillsdale is likely to be cashing in on Tennessee tax dollars to advance its agenda of evangelical exceptionalism.

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Flat-Out Wrong

That’s how Bruce VanWyngarden describes Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme. Yes, the very same scheme Lee is rushing to get up and running THIS school year.

Here’s VanWyngarden in the Memphis Flyer:

Which is why every human being in Tennessee should be absolutely outraged at Governor Bill Lee, who is relentlessly fostering the destruction of our public schools via a voucher system in which parents play the middleman between our state treasury and private schools to the tune of $7,000 per family. It’s flat-out wrong, and it’s using money that rightfully should be going to public schools. If people want to send their children to private schools, let them have at it, just don’t ask the taxpayers to cover the note.

He then goes on to detail the current Hillsdale controversy and note that Lee is selling our public schools to private entities with a very clear agenda.

Reports suggest voucher opponents are making one more attempt in court to stop the “rushed” implementation of the voucher program this year.

Whether or not they succeed, VanWyngarden is right: Vouchers are wrong for Tennessee.

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Total Disgrace

That’s how one incumbent Republican House member describes Gov. Bill Lee’s conduct in the face of comments from a key education advisor disparaging teachers.

Other candidates joined in and suggested the Lee should have taken action rather than sit silently while teachers were attacked. Since the comments were made, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn has doubled down:

Here’s video of the forum where candidates spoke about the incident:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1550962055456456707?s=20&t=vu5OgV6ja6BKuvbMj46SZg

Here’s more on Lee making a weak attempt to distance himself from the whole situation:

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Lee vs. Lee

It seems that July 2022 Bill Lee needs to go back and have a conversation with January 2022 Bill Lee. You see, July Bill Lee is out there doing damage control over a controversy regarding Hillsdale College.

Even early July Bill Lee was doubling down on attacks on public education and defending Hillsdale President Larry Arnn.

Now, though, Lee is backing away from Hillsdale – or, at least he’s claiming that his January 2022 vision for Tennessee is “not his vision.”

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams has been relentless in pursuit of the Hillsdale story and recently caught up with Lee. Here’s what Lee had to say:

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lee why those school board votes should not be seen as a repudiation of his vision of Hillsdale being a key part of his “school choice” efforts.

“It shouldn’t be seen that way because it’s not my vision,” Lee claimed, adding that his vision is “to create the best public school system in the country.”

Lee had asked Arnn to help establish 50 to 100 of the taxpayer-funded schools across the state as part of his push for “informed patriotism” in schools.

It’s pretty interesting that Lee seems to think that no one remembers his State of the State address and his embrace of American exceptionalism. Or, more specifically, Lee’s direct reference to Hillsdale as a beacon of hope for patriotic Americans.

Here’s what Lee said in his January State of the State:

Two years ago, I traveled to Hillsdale College to participate in a Presidents Day celebration and spend time with champions of American exceptionalism.

For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.

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.

And, Lee is working to create an “Institute for American Civics” at UT that borrows curriculum from Hillsdale:

The College Fix notes:

As part of his “America at its Best” agenda, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee allocated $6 million to establish the institute.

Furthermore, Lee said he has formalized a partnership with Hillsdale College to ensure that the Christian school’s philosophies and teaching methods on civics education are brought to the institute.

Anyway, it’d be great if July 2022 Bill Lee could go and catch up with January Bill Lee and tell him to scrap the part of his speech about being all cozy with Hillsdale.

Even better (and less likely) would be if July Bill Lee would actually stand up for Tennessee teachers and public schools and sever all ties with Larry Arnn and Hillsdale.

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Another Hillsdale Rejection

Hillsdale College is having a bit of a moment in Tennessee and the hits just keep on coming.

Just one day after the Rutherford County School Board rejected a Hillsdale charter school, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School Board did the same.

NewsChannel5 has more on Clarksville’s move against Hillsdale:

A charter school program tied to the controversial Hillsdale College suffered a third rejection by a Tennessee school board Tuesday night as the Clarksville-Montgomery County school board said it wanted nothing to do with the school pushed by Gov. Bill Lee.

With no debate, the Board of Education unanimously voted to reject the application of the Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy. That follows similar votes by school boards in Rutherford County and Madison County.

While these districts continue to reject Hillsdale charters, it seems quite possible that Gov. Bill Lee’s unelected charter commission will force the charters on the districts.

So, the local elected leaders have no say and an unelected board loyal to Lee will decide what’s “best” for these communities.

This should come as no surprise considering Lee’s history:

It’s all part of an agenda to funnel public dollars to private schools with a decidedly evangelical bent.

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Rutherford Rejects Hillsdale Charter

The Rutherford County School Board rejected a charter school application from a Hillsdale-affiliated school last night. The vote was 6-1 against.

Here’s one Rutherford County School Board member talking about the problems with charter schools, Gov. Bill Lee, and Hillsdale President Larry Arnn:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1549478212119547904?s=20&t=fC4-gH_Cg1Cba-14C6Rknw

Arnn’s recent comments disparaging teachers certainly didn’t help matters.

Following the vote, the Southern Christian Coalition issued a statement applauding the move and calling on Gov. Lee to sever all ties with Hillsdale.

Here’s more on that from NewsBreak:

Following the Rutherford County School Board’s rejection of a charter school affiliated with Hillsdale College, pastors affiliated with the Southern Christian Coalition hailed the move and called on Gov. Lee and state policymakers to sever all ties with the private college in Michigan.

Coalition member Rev. Donna Whitney of Metro Interdenominational Church in Nashville released a video statement in which she applauded the Rutherford County decision and pushed Lee to take action to end Tennessee’s Hillsdale connection.

“I’m grateful that the Rutherford County School Board rejected the application of American Classical Academy, a charter school connected to Larry Arnn and Hillsdale College. Since January when Governor Lee announced that he wanted to open 100 Hillsdale charter schools in Tennessee, I have been speaking out against this plan due to the school’s failure to appropriately separate church and state in our public schools and because of the fact that their history curriculum whitewashes history. All children across the state deserve access to a high-quality education with high quality curriculum that meets state standards and prepares them to become successful and productive adult members of our community, and these schools would instead be a disservice to our students.

“The comments made by Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, an education advisor to Governor Lee, that ‘teachers come from the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges’ is just further proof that Governor Lee needs to distance himself from Hillsdale and abandon his attempts to bring Hillsdale Schools to Tennessee. These schools erase the line between church and state and are an attempt to bring White Christian Nationalism into our public schools.”

Whitney ended her remarks with an appeal for full funding of the state’s public schools.

“So today I am asking for Governor Lee to abandon this ill-advised partnership and instead finally fully fund our public schools as much as any other state so that every child in Tennessee has access to a quality public education that prepares them to thrive as productive and successful adults who enrich our Tennessee communities.”

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