Hillsdale-linked charter group withdraws applications in Tennessee

American Classical Education executive director Joel Schellhammer speaks during a Sept. 14 public hearing before a state commission considering whether to approve a charter school in Rutherford County, Tennessee, on appeal. (Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

A charter group linked to Michigan’s Hillsdale College on Thursday abruptly pulled its three applications to open schools in Tennessee following public outrage over controversial statements made by the college’s president earlier in the year.

Dolores Gresham, who chairs American Classical Education’s board of directors, notified the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission that the charter network was halting its appeals process before the state this year.

The decision came just days before the commission was to vote on the network’s applications to open independently operated, taxpayer-funded public schools in Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford counties, after school boards in all three places voted overwhelmingly this summer to reject their proposals.

The retreat puts an end — at least, for now — to the contentious battle over the network’s future in Tennessee.

But in a statement, Gresham suggested the group may apply during another year.

“We believe, with complete conviction, that there will be many future opportunities in Tennessee as there are in most of America,” Gresham said. “We look forward to applying for additional charter schools where local parents, teachers and students desire excellent education alternatives.”

In her withdrawal letter to Commission Chairman Tom Griscom, Gresham noted that the panel had declined to delay its scheduled Oct. 5 vote so American Classical could “address concerns and clarify confusion and misconceptions raised by Commission staff in each of the public hearings earlier this month.”

Dolores Gresham chairs the board of directors of American Classical Education. (State of Tennessee)

Gresham, a former Republican state senator who is one of four Tennesseans on the group’s board of directors, did not specify what those concerns were. However, numerous issues — including questions about the adequacy of local public engagement and the network’s plan for serving students with disabilities — were raised during the hearings, as well as in written public comments from Tennesseans.

She also cited the commission’s Oct. 5 “meeting structure” that “will not allow Commissioners to hear directly from community members whose interests lie at the heart of the Commission’s work.”

Chase Ingle, a spokesman for the commission, declined to comment about discussions between American Classical and the state panel’s staff. “Any applicant has the right to withdraw an application in our process,” he told Chalkbeat.

The commission’s vote was expected to test the independence of the commission’s nine members, all of whom were appointed by Gov. Bill Lee.

Earlier this year, Lee said he wanted the Hillsdale group to open at least 50 charter schools in Tennessee. The Republican governor also pushed for a 2019 law creating the appellate panel, leading some critics to charge that the process was skewed to approve more charter schools, especially those related to the small conservative Christian college in south central Michigan.

But scrutiny of the process was elevated when Hillsdale President Larry Arnn declared in June that teachers are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” The remarks, caught by a hidden camera and broadcast by Nashville WTVF reporter Phil Williams, sparked public outrage directed at both Arnn and Lee, who was on stage with Arnn and has refused to disavow his words.

A spokeswoman for Lee did not immediately respond when asked Thursday about American Classical’s withdrawal.

However, House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, one of Tennessee’s leading charter advocates, said he was pleased with the development.

“I believe this to be a good decision by Hillsdale charters at this time due to the events this past summer,” the Memphis Republican told Chalkbeat, referring to the fallout over Arnn’s remarks.

In August, White had said Arnn’s highly publicized words had made it harder for American Classical and every would-be charter operator in Tennessee.

“It’s set us back years,” he told Chalkbeat at the time.

This story has been updated with new information.

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

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