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Hillsdale-linked charter school group will try again in Tennessee

Woman speaks at a podium in large meeting filled with desks and people.

Caitlin Bullard, school choice coordinator for Rutherford County Schools, presents her district’s reasons for rejecting a charter school application from American Classical Education during a public hearing before a state appeals panel on September 14, 2022, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat

A group linked to Michigan’s conservative Hillsdale College is formally exploring opening schools in five Tennessee counties, just months after a controversial failed attempt to open its first charter schools in the state. 

American Classical Education filed letters of intent in recent days with school districts in Madison, Montgomery, Maury, Robertson, and Rutherford counties — all growing suburban areas near Nashville. The proposed schools would open in the 2024-25 school year.

“In the past few months we’ve heard from thousands of Tennessee families who are interested in classical charter schools,” said Dolores Gresham, a former state senator who chairs American Classical’s board in Tennessee. 

“We remain committed to working with communities where there is interest and demand from families for schools with classical curriculums,” she said in a statement.

The letters of intent are the first step in what could be another contentious battle over the charter network’s ambitions plans for Tennessee.  

American Classical sought earlier this year to bring its charter model to three of the counties — Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford. However, all three school boards rejected the applications to open the independently operated, taxpayer-funded public schools. 

The network then sought to overturn those decisions through a year-old state appeals commission appointed by Gov. Bill Lee, considered a national champion of the charter school movement. But the group abruptly withdrew its appeals just days before a scheduled vote amid questions about its plan for serving students with disabilities and the adequacy of its efforts to engage with local citizens in those communities.

The retreat was a blow to the Republican governor, a friend of Hillsdale President Larry Arnn. In an unprecedented endorsement by a Tennessee governor, Lee urged Arnn to open 100 charter schools in Tennessee under Hillsdale College’s classical school model, including a K-12 curriculum that emphasizes America’s strengths rather than its shortcomings. 

But scrutiny of the network’s first three applications heightened in June after leaked video footage showed Arnn declaring at a private reception in Franklin, Tennessee, that teachers are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” Public outrage followed.

After American Classical withdrew its appeals, Gresham indicated that the group would return with more applications.

Charter operators meeting the deadline to file letters of intent have until Feb. 1 to submit formal applications.

A spokesman for American Classical told Chalkbeat that the letters are an “exploratory step” but added: “It wouldn’t shock me if applications are filed in all five counties.”

The suburbs would be new territory for charter schools in Tennessee. Currently, its 100-plus charters operate only in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville — the state’s four largest cities — although Rutherford County has approved two other charter applicants to come there in the next few years. 

Maury County Mayor Sheila Butt welcomed American Classical’s letter of intent to her county south of Nashville.

”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 said. “It is evident that there is a desire from many families for a classical school curriculum.”

But others involved in the charter school review process were neutral in their comments about the prospect of a new round of applications from the Hillsdale-affiliated group.

“Our school district’s charter school review committee will thoroughly review any charter school application submitted to the district … and our director of schools will make a recommendation to the school board,” said James Evans, a spokesman for Rutherford County Schools, where the district cited shortcomings in American Classical’s plans for academics and operations in its last application.

Anthony Johnson, a spokesman for Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, said the district “is committed to a thorough and transparent review aligned with state laws and procedures.” 

Both spokesmen added that district officials will not comment publicly about applications during the review process.

While American Classical was founded by Michigan-based Hillsdale, the letters of intent identify several new members of its board in Tennessee. In addition to Gresham, who lives in Fayette County in West Tennessee, they include Michelle Garcia, an activist parent in Rutherford County; Joey Hale, a real estate executive in Madison County; Dennis Pearson, a professor at Austin Peay State University in Montgomery County; Tricia Stickel, the election commissioner of Maury County; and Darrell Woodard, a Robertson County commissioner.

The addition of Hale, Stickel, and Woodard means the board has representatives from each of the five counties the network has identified as potential school locations. 

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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