NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A contentious charter school operator linked to a conservative Michigan college is taking another swing at opening schools in three Tennessee counties that have previously rejected them, as well as in two new counties.
The letters of intent to apply to run charter schools were submitted by American Classical Education, an operator of charter schools that is supported by Hillsdale College, which licenses the curriculum for free and provides training and other resources. The previous debate over the charter schools unfolded in the wake of controversial comments about teachers made by Hillsdale College's president, Larry Arnn.
American Classical Education intends to apply to run schools in Clarksville-Montgomery, Rutherford and Jackson-Madison counties, board member Dolores Gresham said in a statement. School boards in those counties rejected their applications and the group dropped its appeals in September. The company also submitted letters of intent to open schools in Maury and Robertson counties, Gresham said.
Hillsdale College, a small Michigan school that holds outsize influence with Republican politicians, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, has said it does not operate or manage the charter schools. But critics have questioned how independent American Classical Education and other charter operators are, citing times that Hillsdale officials have shown up as board members for the organizations.
Hillsdale began its charter schools initiative in 2010. Previously, Arnn said Lee wanted 100 Hillsdale-linked charters in Tennessee, but Arnn announced plans to open 50. None have have been approved to date.
Arnn recently spearheaded the “1776 Curriculum,” inspired by former President Donald Trump’s short-lived “1776 Commission,” a direct response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” focusing on America’s history of slavery. Curriculum materials have been criticized as glorifying the founders, downplaying America’s role in slavery and condemning the rise of progressive politics.
During a private reception earlier this year, Arnn made controversial remarks about teachers, including a declaration that educators are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” Lee, who was on stage with Arnn during some of his remarks, did not condemn the statements, which were revealed by a TV station, but has tried to tone down his admiration for the college since then.
Lee’s Democratic opponent tried to use the issue against him on the campaign trail, but the Republican-voting state still reelected Lee in a landslide last month.
American Classical Education abandoned its applications in the initial three counties in September after it sought and failed to receive a delay to its presentation before the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission. Afterward, Gresham hinted that the organization would regroup and try again, saying it still believed there would be “many future opportunities in Tennessee as there are in most of America.”
Letters of intent were due 60 days before the Feb. 1 application deadline to start a charter school for the 2024-2025 school year.
“In the past few months we’ve heard from thousands of Tennessee families who are interested in classical charter schools,” Gresham, a former Republican state senator who once chaired the powerful Senate education committee, said Tuesday. "We remain committed to working with communities where there is interest and demand from families for schools with classical curriculums.”
The renewed push drew quick criticism from Democrats.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville tweeted that Hillsdale “took a backseat in September before the election in November, as Hillsdale charter schools are incredibly unpopular.”
"But guess what, they’re baaaaaack,” she continued.
Hillsdale's 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.”
Local Tennessee school boards cited various reasons for rejecting American Classical Education's applications, including shortcomings about the curriculum and insufficient plans to serve disabled children. The Tennessee Public Charter School Commission held public hearings over the rejected applications before the group withdrew from the appeals process.
Gresham maintains that the charter school operator withdrew the appeals in part because of “limited time” the group argued was needed to address concerns raised by the state commission.
The commission rejected a delay, citing timeline requirements for those appeals in state law.
In one of the new counties targeted for a school this time, Maury County Mayor Sheila Butt threw her support behind the push.
"We need to provide families with additional school choice options and we all want what’s best for each individual student and his or her needs," Butt, a former GOP state representative, said in a statement.