The battle over classroom instruction is playing out in Tennessee, where Republican Gov. Bill Lee is meeting with resistance from the left over his bid to partner with Hillsdale College in opening dozens of new charter schools.
In his State of the State address, Mr. Lee proposed adding $32 million to “increase the number of high-quality Charter Schools,” and highlighted the role of Hillsdale, the conservative Christian college based in Michigan.
“For decades, Hillsdale College has been a standard-bearer in quality curriculum and in the responsibility of preserving American liberty,” Mr. Lee said. “I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee. We are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education in Tennessee.”
His initiative drew immediate pushback from Democrats opposed both to expanding the charter-school network and bringing in Hillsdale, which offers “curriculum, training, and consultation” to public and private classical schools as part of the 12-year-old Barney Charter School Initiative.
“Hillsdale College and their warped version of history have no right to be in our kids’ public schools,” Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said in a March 1 statement.
The Tennessee Democratic Party tweeted that the governor’s “school scheme takes public dollars away from our already underfunded schools and puts them toward Betsy Devos-style private charters that teach a far-right, conservative, ahistorical ideology.”
Mr. Lee has since sought to dispel concerns, telling news outlets last month that Hillsdale and others would be subject to state vetting.
“We want charter school operators in this state from all over the country,” Mr. Lee said after a March 9 speech at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
He added that “Hillsdale is not currently operating here, but they are one who would like to, and they’ll go through the same vetting process as anyone, which will include curriculum.”
In September, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn told a Tennessee audience he had agreed to start 50 state charter schools, although the governor initially asked for 100, according to an audio recording posted online.
Hillsdale does not operate charter schools, but provides assistance to 21 K-12 “member schools” nationwide, as well as 33 “curriculum schools.”
“Today’s public schools are too often poor stewards of their trust, caught between moral and cultural relativism, conflicting views about education’s purposes, and tangled layers of testing and oversight from multi-level bureaucracies,” said the Barney Charter School Initiative website.
The initiative “provides an effective alternative by collaborating with local citizens throughout the country to found classical charter schools built on the best curricular and instructional traditions,” according to the website.
Mr. Lee said the state now hosts 116 charter schools run by 22 operators that educate 44,000 students, and that 91% of those are minority students.
“Many of them [come] from difficult zip codes and neighborhoods in our state,” he said in a video posted by WKRN-TV. “We need to give them and we should make certain that we give the parents who choose that public school options for their kids.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed an open-records request “seeking information about Governor Bill Lee‘s developing partnership with Hillsdale College.”
“Outsourcing the operation of our public schools to a private, out-of-state religious college is not in the best interest of Tennessee’s children and is deeply concerning,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, in a Feb. 28 statement. “Governor Lee‘s plan raises serious constitutional concerns, and the public deserves full transparency so that they know about any financial arrangement and other details of this agreement, as well as its impact on public education.”