Scrutinized charter school operator drops Tennessee appeals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A contentious charter school operator linked to a conservative Michigan college has dropped its appeals in Tennessee seeking to open three schools there, despite local school boards rejecting their initial request.

The school operator’s decision ends high-profile speculation — at least for now — over the fate of the charter schools. The debate unfolded in the wake of controversial comments about teachers made by the president of Hillsdale College, a small college that holds outsized influence with Republican politicians.

In a letter Thursday, American Classical Education said it had sought a delay to the Oct. 5 meeting where the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission would decide whether to override local school boards regarding the proposed schools. The request for the 45-day delay, made Sept. 26, was denied the next day by the commission, which cited timeline requirements for those appeals in state law.

“We made this decision 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,” Dolores Gresham, American Classical Education board chair and a former state senator, wrote in Thursday’s letter to the commission.

Earlier this month, the state commission held public hearings on the applications for the three schools. Supporters of the Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools filled up the majority of the allotted slots allowed for public testimony in the first hearing.

Gresham said in a statement that the organization still believes there will be “many future opportunities in Tennessee as there are in most of America.”

Scrutiny over Hillsdale has also centered on Hillsdale College President Larry 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 Republican Gov. Bill Lee wanted 100 Hillsdale-linked charters in Tennessee, but Arnn announced plans to open 50.

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 have been criticized as glorifying the founders, downplaying America’s role in slavery and condemning the rise of progressive politics.

“Now this is news worth celebrating! Hillsdale’s dangerous and inaccurate 1776 program, outright disdain and disrespect for Tennessee teachers, and warped curriculum have NO place in #Tennessee,” Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari tweeted Thursday. “Good riddance!”

Thursday’s news also eases some of the scrutiny surrounding the state’s Charter School Commission. Critics have long argued that it was designed to rubberstamp charters that local communities didn’t want, as several commissioners are tied to pro-charter groups. The nine members were handpicked by Lee — who has been a vocal charter school supporter and proponent of Hillsdale College’s charter initiative.

The commission was already facing fire after The Associated Press revealed that commission staffers had been shocked at how the denials of the Hillsdale-affiliated charter applications took place. A commission spokesperson later said staffers closely monitor such actions to stay prepared for potential appeals.

The governor continued to distance himself from Hillsdale on Thursday, declining to weigh in on their application withdrawals and instead reiterating that he wanted to continue to provide more education choices to families.

“I continue to believe that we should have classical education options for parents but the decision that was made there is entirely their decision,” Lee said.

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