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ACLU to Gov. Bill Lee: Release records on Hillsdale charter schools

A collage of Donald Trump, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, and Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn, set against a panoramic view of Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Photos via Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images, State of Tennesee, Gage Skidmore / Flickr, and eandersk / Flickr, collage by Dan Lyon / Chalkbeat | There are longstanding debates on how educators should teach injustices in U.S. history. Gov. Bill Lee’s (center) plan with Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn (right) to fill Tennessee with Hillsdale charter schools that promote “informed patriotism” are the latest battle in an ideological feud reignited during the Trump Administration.

The ACLU of Tennessee has requested that the state of Tennessee release all records regarding its announced charter school partnership with Hillsdale College in Michigan. 

In its request, covered under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU stated, “According to  recent news reports, Governor Bill Lee is developing a partnership with Hillsdale College to establish a number of publicly funded charter schools throughout Tennessee to be operated by  the private Christian university.”

The request added, “Governor Lee’s plan raises serious constitutional concerns.”

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A representative from the governor’s office was not immediately available for comment. 

Chalkbeat reported on the controversial partnership in an article on Feb. 7, including that Hillsdale President Larry Arnn and Lee have discussed opening 50 to 100 charter schools across Tennessee. 

In his State of the State address on Jan. 31, Lee announced the Hillsdale partnership and a new Institute of American Civics at the University of Tennessee as part of his larger plan to promote “informed patriotism” and combat “anti-American thought” in history and civics education. Numerous other organizations provide civics curriculum, but Lee is not seeking a request for proposals or using a bidding process.

The Republican governor’s push comes at a time when states across the country are passing measures that attack critical race theory, ban books about difficult topics from school libraries and syllabi, and restrict classroom discussions on certain topics about race and gender. 

There are longstanding debates on how educators should teach patterns of injustice in U.S. history. The latest battle in the ideological feud started after conservative activists challenged districts that incorporated instructional material from The New York Times 1619 Project. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s architect, received a Pulitzer Prize for her work, and Hillsdale President Larry Arnn signed a joint letter asking the Pulitzer board to revoke the award. Arnn also led the Trump administration’s response initiative, the 1776 Commission. The governor’s plan to bring dozens of Hillsdale charter schools to Tennessee and the mounting resistance to the partnership are the latest battle in the classroom culture wars. 

“This would flow through the established, unbiased charter application, just like any other proposed public charter school,” Lee’s press secretary Casey Black stated in February. “We are simply introducing another high-quality option for Tennessee students.”

But others have pushed back on that claim. 

“Hillsdale College and their warped version of history have no right to be in our kids’ public schools. Our children deserve to learn the truth about our history — good, bad, and ugly — without pretext for the people who justified discrimination and excused violence against Black Americans,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat.

“There is no legitimate “both sides” to such events, and we must not welcome, or pay for, educational materials that pardon clear acts of racism,” she added.

Rep. Jason Hodges had similarly strong words.

“This is purely about money and ideology,” said Hodges, a Clarksville Democrat in February. 

And in its recent statement, the ACLU called the deal a questionable use of taxpayer dollars.

“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, executive director of ACLU of Tennessee.

She added, “Gov. 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.”

Copies of the ACLU’s open records requests can be found here.

Bureau Chief Cathryn Stout, Ph.D. oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s news coverage. Contact Cathryn at cstout@chalkbeat.org

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