Hillsdale charter school group faces questions as its first appeal goes before Tennessee commission

A man speaks from a podium while a woman sitting at a desk asks questions.

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

But the head of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission had lots of questions for the charter group, American Classical Education, and its CEO, Joel Schellhammer — specifically about the changing lineup of its governing board, which has removed some Hillsdale officials and now has four Tennesseans. 

Among them: Why didn’t the network keep Rutherford County Schools apprised of the changes as part of the application and review process? 

Tess Stovall, the commission’s executive director, also asked how the group determined that enough parent and community support existed to open a classical charter school in the suburban district south of Nashville. According to the network’s application, only a fifth of the 1,711 people surveyed were Rutherford County residents, and it was unclear how many of those were parents of prospective students.

“The survey was just one part of a multi-pronged approach of evaluating whether there would be interest and demand within Rutherford County for a school like this,” Schellhammer answered. He added that population trends and speaking with “numerous parents firsthand … gave us far more confidence.”

The exchanges with Schellhammer during the first of three Hillsdale-related public hearings this week highlighted issues Stovall is considering before making recommendations to her panel. On Oct. 5, the commission will vote whether to allow American Classical to open the first trio of its 50 planned charter schools in Tennessee — taxpayer-funded schools that Gov. Bill Lee wants but local school boards don’t.

While people both for and against the Hillsdale schools showed up at the hearing to speak, only supporters got a chance to share their comments in person. Others will have to submit their positions in writing. 

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

The commission’s decisions on the appeals will test the independence of its nine members, all of whom were appointed by the Republican governor, who also lobbied for a 2019 law creating the panel in an effort to open more high-quality charter schools. 

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

But that was before Nashville’s WTVF aired its bombshell news 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 “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” The remarks sparked public outrage from educators and Lee’s own allies in the Republican Party, but the governor has declined to repudiate Arnn’s words. 

In its written appeals, American Classical charged that denials of its applications by school boards in Rutherford and Madison County were “colored by politics.” 

Stovall, who led the appeal hearing, asked the leader of Rutherford County’s review team whether its work was influenced by Arnn’s highly publicized comments about teachers. 

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 turned in before Arnn’s comments aired.

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

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

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

American Classical leaders did not speak to that concern during the hearing, but emphasized Rutherford County’s growing population and the lack of a public classical school option as reasons for opening its proposed 340-student school.

“What we’re trying to put together is a school that trains students in virtue, resulting in high academic achievement, and the sound moral formation required for responsible citizenship,” said Phillip Schwenk, founding principal of a classical school in northwest Ohio, speaking on behalf of American Classical. 

Michael Dewey, a local real estate agent with four school-age children, said his family has tried public schools, home school, and a military boarding school, but would welcome a public charter school like American Classical that integrates a liberal arts and sciences education with instruction about principles of moral character. 

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

Chris Littleton, a father of three school-age children, said he observed a lack of rigor in his children’s education through Rutherford County Schools when they learned online during the pandemic. Now he wants to take his tax dollars elsewhere.

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

Every resident who spoke at the two-hour hearing spoke in favor of American Classical, as most of the 15 available slots were taken on a “first come, first serve basis” before opponents could sign up, said Sienna Holl, president of the teachers group in Rutherford County. Her organization petitioned for more speaking slots but was turned down. 

Stovall invited others to submit written comments, which she said will be given the same consideration as those delivered in person. The window for submissions ends at 1 p.m. CT on Sept. 21.

“We’re going to clog up their email, we’re going to blow it up, because we have things to say,” said Holl, who was also concerned that the hearing was held during school hours when teachers could not attend. “Our school board did its homework, and if they’ve deemed the application unfit, I think that needs to be honored.”

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

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

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

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

“This is a way for them to introduce American exceptionalism curriculum into our district,” said Wynn, who is Black. “My children do not deserve it, and I need children who do not look like mine to understand what has happened in the past, so they can understand how we can do better in the future.”

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

Dr. Jason Martin, the Democratic nominee challenging Lee’s run for a second term in office, was on hand to show his support for Rutherford County’s school board — and for local education control. 

“They reviewed the application using the rubric provided by the state and found it to be deficient,” Martin said. “Now what we’re seeing is an unelected board coming in to overturn it during school hours when advocates for (traditional public) education are at work.”

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

To view more details about the appeals, visit the commission’s website.

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org 

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