Controversy dogs Hillsdale charter schools
“The teachers are trained in the dumbest part of the dumbest colleges in the country,” said Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, in late June. Hillsdale had plans to establish 50-100 charter schools in Tennessee. But sitting in the audience was Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee when Arnn made his pronouncement. Lee did not outright rebuke Arnn’s statement, but later went on to praise Tennessee teachers.
That was the day when Hillsdale’s grand vision in Tennessee may have died. In the three Tennessee school districts that were going to use the Hillsdale curriculum, the new charters quickly pulled their applications.
The proposals by the prospective charter schools weren’t helped when it was revealed that Hillsdale opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Arnn stated that racism is like sexuality – neither should be discussed in the classroom. “Obviously, Lt. Governor McNally supports the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as did a majority of Republicans in Congress when it passed,” McNally’s spokesperson responded.
The proposed charter schools decided to bypass the local school boards and go directly to the state chartering commission. By October, the commission was to determine whether Tennessee would authorize the schools now opposed by the original chartering school districts. However, on September 29, the three Hillsdale-affiliated schools withdrew their applications.
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he and other Republicans were working with Democrats on legislation to strip unilateral authority from the commission to approve the Hillsdale charters. The withdrawal of the applications may have avoided the confrontation, but it seemed certain that the charters saw the handwriting on the wall: They were not going to be approved.
In Wisconsin, the Hillsdale charter school curriculum is the bedrock of Lake Country Classical Academy (LCCA) in Oconomowoc under the sponsorship of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University in northern Wisconsin.
In December 2021, the Examiner covered the launch of LCCA, Wisconsin’s first Hillsdale charter which, after being repeatedly turned down by other charter authorizers, made an agreement to launch under the supervision of the LCO Ojibwe University — “How a Wisconsin tribe helped launch a Trump-approved Make America Great Again charter school”.
Using the Hillsdale curriculum, LCCA emphasizes the greatness of the United States’ Western European roots, “taught with an emphasis on the history and traditions of American citizens as the inheritors of Western civilization,” LCCA’s website explains.
That orientation seems to be an odd fit with an Ojibwe community. In order to gain acceptance for this Native American university as its chartering agency, LCCA agreed to add some Native American elements to its curriculum. “We plan on offering a supplemental curriculum that will allow students to take a deeper dive into learning about the history, language, customs, and values of Native American people, with a focus on the Ojibwe and other Wisconsin tribes,” the LCCA website states. That supplemental curriculum includes Native American folk tales which are covered in several grades. But the Native American elements appear to be a minor addition to the existing Hillsdale curriculum.
Jason Dropik, the principal of Indian Community School (ICS) in Franklin and president of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), says that an individual working on the Native American component curriculum at LCCA reached out to ICS.
ICS has been willing to connect with other schools as they develop curriculum concerning Native American language and culture, says Dropik. He has worked with other charters in the Milwaukee area and nationally with the NIEA.
“We reach out when people reach out to us, or if we have a relationship,” says Dropik. He and the curriculum and cultural directors at ICS had some discussions with LCCA. It did not go any further. “We didn’t see alignment. It was not going to be beneficial for both of us,” he says.
“If charters are created that help to support Native American language and culture, I am supportive of those and definitely see the need for those to exist,” Dropik adds. ICS did not collaborate with Lake Country on their work.
NIEA’s relationship with charter schools is complicated. Its main interest is in the creation of charter schools specifically for Native American children. It has published the handbook, “Sovereignty in Education: Creating Culturally-based Charter Schools in Native Communities.”
The handbook has several cautions with charters. In the subheading, “Challenges to charter education,” it lays out general concerns including discrimination against students with disabilities, little oversight, and the ethics of large-scale education management organizations (EMOs).
At the same time, the NIEA Advisory Group for the handbook includes Albert Bertram, Bay Mills Community College Charter School Office. Bay Mills Ojibwe College is chartering 46 schools with 22,000 students in Michigan, few of whom are Native American students.
NIEA expressed concerns when President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, stating: “She may prioritize federal funding for private schools over tribal sovereignty.” The group had concerns about lack of support for federally funded schools within the Bureau of Indian Education system and noted that 92% of all Native American students attend public schools. DeVos had not allayed the group’s worry, it stated that “she may be more committed to her ideals with respect to school funding than to policies that would be beneficial to Native students.”
The press release concludes with “… the fundamental question of whether Ms. DeVos respects tribal sovereignty in education.”
NIEA continues to support Native American-authorized charter schools but has been silent as tribal authorizers branch out into other communities.
Tribal sovereignty is a continual theme in the Native American community. J P Leary is an associate professor at UW-Green Bay and was the American Indian studies consultant at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) from 1990 to 2011. He is the author of The History of Act 31, the law that requires the teaching of Native American history and culture in Wisconsin schools. He concedes that he has only some passing knowledge of the LCCA charter; however, he says, “LCO [Ojibwe University] is asserting their sovereignty through that relationship.”
In response to an inquiry from the Examiner about whether LCO Ojibwe University would reconsider its relationship with LCCA in light of recent controversies involving Hillsdale, Russell M. Swagger, president of LCO Ojibwe University, responded, “Our University will continue to assess each decision with the best interests of the students we serve in mind.”
Native Americans in South Dakota raised questions about Hillsdale’s attitude toward their history and culture when Gov. Kristi Noem, a fan of Hillsdale, hired former Hillsdale professor William Morrisey to rewrite the state’s social studies standards, deleting references to Native Americans. Public protests about erasing Native Americans from U.S. history followed and Noem put the standards process on hold, then scrapped it.
Since Arnn’s controversial statements, several classical charter schools have cut their ties with Hillsdale. Hillsdale has over 70 affiliated schools spread across the U.S., but the growth of the Hillsdale charter movement shows signs of slowing following recent controversies. Beyond Arnn’s statements, affiliated schools complain of interference in individual school management and high fees charged by Barney Charter School Initiative, its support arm. Hilldale counters that it must ensure that affiliated schools meet its high standards.
Other charter providers including Edison, Mosaica and American Quality Schools that had visions of creating a charter empire didn’t last. Some schools that use curriculum and management companies for the first few years later decide to develop their own expertise and keep the money. Hillsdale College, which has deep ties to supporters in the national conservative movement, does not rely on the charter schools for funding. .
Lake Country Classical Academy did not respond to the Examiner’s request to comment on its direction.
Correction and update: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that three Tennessee school districts pulled their applications — in fact the charter schools themselves pulled their applications, as the story now states. In addition, the statement that “it was certain that the charter schools saw the handwriting on the wall” after the Hillsdale controversies has been amended to say “it seemed certain.”
According to a statement the Examiner received from American Classical Academy after this story published, the controversies were not linked to the applications’ withdrawal. In their withdrawal letter to the state, the organization states that it chose to withdraw “because of the limited time to resolve the concerns raised by the Commission staff and our concerns that the meeting structure and timing on October 5th will not allow Commissioners to hear directly from the community members whose interests lie at the heart of the Commission’s work.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that affiliated charter schools that severed their relationship with Hillsdale complained of “high fees and interference in individual school management” by Hillsdale. Hillsdale objects that it does not charge any fees to member schools. The fees are charged by Barney Charter School Initiative, its support arm. That relationship has been clarified above.