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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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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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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Is Hillsdale Cancelled?

The fallout from Gov. Lee’s silence as an education advisor disparaged teachers continues to grow. This time, House Education Committee Chair Mark White is speaking out – saying the state must sever ties with Hillsdale.

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1546521735482179587?s=20&t=9yG9bcxmp8KFoANwIpPyzg

That’s a nice sentiment and it is good to see White take a public stance against Lee’s agenda.

However, it is worth noting here that charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale have already applied to operate in several middle Tennessee districts. While these districts have yet to approve a Hillsdale charter, the state charter commission – with all members appointed by Lee – can override local decisions.

So, while White may want to take action in January of 2023, it may be too late by then to stop Hillsdale from advancing its agenda of evangelical exceptionalism into Tennessee public schools.

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Extreme Privatization

If you are wondering what it looks like when school privatizers are close to total victory, Tennessee is a prime example. Here, the forces that want to take public money and hand it over to private entities are on the verge of completing their conquest. 

Tennessee’s current legislative session features a range of attacks on public schools. Some of these would have immediate impacts, while others take a longer-term approach to fully privatizing K-12 education in the state.

First, it is important to understand that groups backing privatization in the form of charter schools and vouchers are among the top spenders when it comes to lobbying state legislators. For example, the American Federation for Children—an organization founded and previously led by the family of Betsy DeVos, a school privatization advocate and former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education—spent $887,500. Another big spender, the Tennessee Charter School Center, spent $732,500.

Based on this year’s full-frontal assault, these investments appear to be paying off. There are three key issues that currently pose the most significant threat to Tennessee’s public schools. They include: a partnership with Hillsdale College, a private fundamentalist Christian college in Michigan, to run fifty or more charter schools; legislation that would create a charter school real estate grab; and school funding reforms that set the stage for a statewide voucher program.

In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee restated his commitment to set aside $32 million to help launch new charters in Tennessee and announced the Hillsdale College partnership, which could bring close to fifty Hillsdale-run charter schools into the state. 

Beyond the use of public funds to open schools run by a private, Christian college, there is reason to be concerned about the nature of the Hillsdale curriculum. As educator and blogger Peter Greene explained,  “[Hillsdale President Larry] Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. . . . The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh’s show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy.” 

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Of course, any charter schools—Hillsdale or otherwise—must be approved by a local school board, right? Wrong! Tennessee’s State Charter Commission, created by Lee, can override local decisions. And Lee is now seeking to expand the authority of this unelected body. 

Legislation currently advancing in the state Senate (SB2168/HB2833) would allow charter schools to apply directly to the State Charter Commission. This means a group of unelected appointees of a pro-privatization governor could decide to place charter schools in districts where the local elected officials and public don’t want them.

Another part of the same bill creates a real estate grab for charter operators. The relevant section states:

The proposed legislation authorizes a public charter school operating in the LEA to have a right of first refusal to: lease at an annual cost not to exceed the annual capital funding received by the public charter school leasing the building; or purchase at or below fair market value any underutilized or vacant property submitted by the LEA under this section. 

Just to be clear, public money in the form of local property taxes pays for facilities run by public schools. Should this new legislation pass and become law, an unelected state board will be able to place charter schools in a district, and those charter schools can take over public buildings at a reduced cost. So much for the free market.

Potentially millions of dollars worth of real estate assets in local districts across Tennessee could soon be up for grabs at prices below market value. No wonder privatizers tied to the charter industry have spent $8 million lobbying the legislature.

The final element in the push for privatization is being billed as a “reform” of the state’s school funding formula. Governor Lee recently released his plan to revamp how the state directs money to local school districts for public schools. The bottom line, according to Lee, is that the approach is “student-centered” and that funds “follow the child” no matter what. This plan is based on model legislation from the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

This statement, first of all, creates the erroneous impression that charter schools operate as “public” schools. Although called public schools under Tennessee law (as in most states), these schools function with less government oversight and an array of private operations, from real estate management to the sourcing of substitute teachers to overall school management.

Second, the proposed change to school funding is quite simply the gateway to a full-on voucher scheme. As Tennessee teacher Mike Stein wrote on his personal blog, the final form of funding reform is a workaround for a school voucher law that Lee enacted and was ruled unconstitutional

Step one, according to Stein, is to create a funding allocation for each individual student; step two is to allow that funding to follow the individual student to whatever “public” school they attend; and step three is to let parents take these funds to any school, public or private.

The short-term impact of this formula would be an influx of funds to charter schools and their operators. In the long term, a transition to a fully operational “choice” economy of schools seems likely.

Lee has been fighting to redirect public money to private schools since before he was elected governor. It now looks like a fight he’s poised to win. And if he does, defenders of public education should learn to resist next time the small, subtle cuts to public education that he used to lay the groundwork.

This piece originally appeared in The Progressive

Frequent Flyer?

Gov. Bill Lee has come under fire for a controversial plan to invite Hillsdale College in Michigan to run 50 or more charter schools in Tennessee.

Now, WKRN in Nashville reports that taxpayers funded a trip by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to a conference at Hillsdale.

With the governor’s new education spending plan, that could mean public dollars going to Hillsdale, a private Christian school in Michigan with close ties to former President Donald Trump’s administration.

According to the Transparent Tennessee website, in June of 2021, Tennessee taxpayers paid for Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s trip to Hillsdale to attend the school’s ‘American Classical Education 2021 Summer Conference”.

According to WKRN, Lee’s office said of the interactions with Hillsdale:

“We have invited Hillsdale to undergo the application process in an effort to introduce another high-quality k-12 public education option for Tennessee students.”

But here’s what Lee said about Hillsdale in his 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.

So, the press statement suggesting that Hillsdale has been “invited to apply” sounds a lot different than Lee’s words saying that Tennessee is “formalizing a partnership.” How does one walk back a nearly formalized partnership and turn it into a mere “invitation to undergo an application?” Does Hillsdale know Lee is backtracking amid pressure? Or is Lee attempting to obfuscate what is likely already a done deal?

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Exceptionally Bad

Gov. Bill Lee made clear in his State of the State that he is a proponent of an alternative history known as “American exceptionalism.”

This theory is grounded in a sort of American evangelicalism – and certainly has strong ties to far-right Christian movements. To advance his “exceptionalism agenda” Lee has announced a partnership with conservative Hillsdale College – a private, Christian school in Michigan. Yes, Tennessee is such a great example of exceptionalism that we have to turn to a private college from Michigan to “properly” teach history.

Here’s a note on that from Lee’s speech:

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.

WPLN reports that public education advocates are raising concerns about the transfer of Tennessee tax dollars to a private, religious institution:

Lee has made a deal with a conservative college to open about 50 charter schools in the state.

Lee has made a deal with Hillsdale College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, to bring their civic education and K-12 curriculum to Tennessee.

Beth Brown, the [Tennessee Education] association’s president, says there is no need to bring in outsiders to implement a new curriculum or to set aside $32 million for new charter schools, a key element in the proposal.

“The concern is that we’re taking taxpayer dollars and we’re going to take those taxpayer dollars away from our public schools and give them to private entities,” said Brown.

It’s noteworthy, too, that Lee cited Ronald Reagan in his address:

I recently watched President Reagan’s farewell address, made just before he left office in January of 1989.

As many other Presidents have done, his farewell address includes a warning to the American people.

He reminds us that what we want to have in this country is “informed patriotism.”

Lee claims that he has been inspired by Reagan’s words. This inspiration is ostensibly the impetus for the focus on an American exceptionalism curriculum from Hillsdale College.

Of course, Reagan is no stranger to efforts to dismantle public education and turn schools over to those on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

In fact, a June piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by education journalists Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider point out that today’s privatization movement has roots in Reaganism:

This crusade against public higher education eerily presaged today’s school culture wars. Where Reagan made a target of ethnic studies and tried to keep Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, from teaching philosophy at UCLA, today’s bogeyman is critical race theory or CRT — a legal theory that has become a vague catchall for grievances of the sort that Reagan weaponized so effectively. To date, laws aimed at restricting how public school teachers talk about race and racism have been proposed in 22 states and signed into law in five.

Public schools, GOP leaders have argued, are teaching children to believe that the country is inherently bad. But just as Reagan used his anti-campus campaign to undermine support for public higher education, his disciples are motivated by a similar cause. For a Republican party that has grown increasingly hostile to public education, the K-12 culture war is also an opportunity to advance the cause of school privatization.

State legislators, meanwhile, have introduced a flurry of bills aimed at cutting funds from schools with curricula that the GOP deems unacceptable. In Michigan, a proposed measure would cut 5% of funding if school districts teach “anti-American” ideas about race in America, material from the 1619 Project, or critical race theory. In Tennessee, a new law empowers the state’s education chief to withhold funds from schools found to be teaching components of critical race theory.

The constant drumbeat that public schools are indoctrinating children, however, serves as a powerful nudge to parents to flee them. If their tax dollars are paying for something they’re opposed to, then maybe privatization isn’t such a terrible idea after all. This was Reagan’s move.

This, then, gets to the heart of Lee’s education “reform” agenda. He’s overhauling the school funding formula (BEP) to make it “student-centered.” While his voucher scheme languishes in the courts, Lee is taking the first steps to create a new funding formula that builds a bridge to vouchers. Don’t like all the “indoctrination” at your local school? Take that state money and hand it over to a Hillsdale charter school that proudly evangelizes about America’s “good old days.”

Here’s how he phrases it in the speech:

I’m proposing an innovative approach that sets aside dollars for each student, based on their individual needs, and these dollars will be used in whatever public school they attend.

Guess what? Hillsdale’s charter schools would be public schools under Tennessee law – Lee is proposing handing over state money to a private, religious college to run “public” schools.

Ronald Reagan would most certainly be very proud of the division and discord Lee is sowing in the name of turning public money over to private, right-wing Christian school operators.

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