MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee panel has kicked off hearings over whether to let charter schools linked to Hillsdale College open despite rejections from local school boards, a process unfolding in the wake of controversial comments about teachers by Hillsdale’s president.
On Wednesday, only advocates for opening the school in Rutherford County, which includes booming suburbs of Nashville, spoke during a public comment session in front of Tennessee Public Charter School Commission staff. Michelle Garcia, a volunteer board member for the American Classical Education charter group and a Rutherford County mother, afterward touted the testimony of the dozen or so people as an indicator that “local parents, teachers and students want more public education choices.”
But opponents of the schools showed up as well, several of whom said they wanted to testify at the meeting, but the speaking slots were capped and quickly filled weeks ahead of time. They gathered outside before and after the meeting in front of TV cameras to voice their concerns. Written comments are still being accepted.
“As moms who had to find child care and take off work, it took us some time to figure out if we could be here,” said Lea Maiten, who opposes the school. “And by the time we did, there was no opportunity for us to speak.”
Still, a decision on the American Classical Academy Rutherford won’t come for weeks.
The commission’s top staffer will recommend whether to let the school open or not, but ultimately, the choice will be made at an Oct. 5 meeting by the nine-member board. Some voting members — all of whom are appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee — were on hand to listen in during Wednesday’s hearing.
Similar hearings are scheduled Thursday in Jackson and Friday in Clarksville for proposed Hillsdale-linked charter schools that were denied by local school boards.
Hillsdale, a small conservative college in Michigan, holds outsized influence with Republican politicians. College President Larry Arnn had recently spearheaded the “1776 Curriculum,” inspired by former President Donald Trump’s short-lived “1776 Commission,” as a direct response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” focusing on America’s history of slavery. Curriculum materials glorify the founders, downplay America’s role in slavery and condemn the rise of progressive politics.
Its prominence has strengthened among conservatives amid the national debate over the role schools should play in teaching race and sexuality. South Dakota, for one, turned to a former Hillsdale politics professor to write proposed social studies standards for its public schools. They align with the “1776 Curriculum.”
Scrutiny over Hillsdale has also centered on Arnn’s comments on teachers, including a declaration that educators are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” The governor, who was on stage with Arnn during some of his remarks, has refused to condemn his words. Previously, Arnn said Lee wanted 100 Hillsdale-linked charters in Tennessee, but Arnn announced plans to open 50.
Chris Littleton, a father of three school-aged children, including one in a private school modeled similarly to the Hillsdale-linked charters, testified that he wasn’t bothered by Arnn’s comments and supports the school. He said he wish he could’ve taken his tax dollars elsewhere already.
He said consideration of Hillsdale’s involvement is “is wholly irrelevant and equally insulting, as it presumes that parents can’t judge facts or intent for ourselves.”
“I heard exactly what was said and I don’t care about Hillsdale or Arnn,” Littleton said. “With regards to school, as a parent, I’m laser-focused on one thing, and that is good education for my children.”
Angela Wynn — with three of her children currently in Rutherford County public schools — said she couldn’t dismiss Arnn’s words.
“If you have someone who is in a public speaking capacity degrading teachers, not just with big words but literally calling them dumb, and then you want to come into our schools and try to say that you’re going to do better for our children? That’s not how it works,” Wynn said.
The hearing also allowed commission staff to question leaders of the proposed school and Rutherford County Schools officials over the application and rejection, which cited shortcomings ranging from its curriculum to its plans to serve disabled children. There also were extensive questions about ties to Hillsdale and some board changes.
Caitlin Bullard, school choice and charter coordinator for Rutherford County Schools, also said that the public testimony Wednesday didn’t change a lack of sufficient community support for the school, saying the supporters represent “the voices of a small segment of our community.”
In a July meeting, no leaders from the school testified before the Rutherford County board rejected the application. Commission staffers, in text messages obtained by the AP in a records request, expressed shock that no one spoke.
Dolores Gresham, a charter group board member and former Republican state senator, has said they received two days’ notice that they might get to speak in July, and a personal emergency prevented the executive director from doing so.