Tennessee staff fret as contentious charter school denied

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When local school officials voted down a Tennessee charter school linked to Hillsdale College this summer, staffers at the state commission that would soon have to decide whether to let the controversial school open anyway reacted with shock at how things unfolded.

The text messages they exchanged, obtained through a records request by The Associated Press, showed the close attention state staffers paid to the school board’s resounding rejection in the wake of Hillsdale President Larry Arnn’s disparaging comments about teachers. When no one showed up to make the case for the Hillsdale-affiliated charter school application, the alarm among those who would be left holding the bag was palpable.

“What!!!! They invited both schools to speak and (they) did not show!!!” texted Beth Figueroa, the commission’s director of authorizing.

“WHAT,” replied Chase Ingle, commission spokesperson.

“I’m speechless!!!” Figueroa wrote.

Critics ranging from some Democratic lawmakers to educators have argued the Tennessee Charter School Commission was designed to rubberstamp charters that local communities don’t want, with several members tied to pro-charter groups. The nine members are handpicked by Republican Gov. Bill Lee — a vocal charter schools supporter and proponent of Hillsdale College’s charter initiative — and confirmed by lawmakers in the GOP-supermajority General Assembly. The staffers work for the commission.

Hillsdale, a small conservative college in Michigan, holds outsized influence with Republican politicians. 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 glorify the founders, downplay America’s role in slavery and condemn the rise of progressive politics.

Its 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.”

Tennessee’s state commission will be put to the test this week during public hearings— run by commission staffers — as board members consider whether to approve applications from three Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools appealing their rejections by local school boards.

The texts were among hundreds of documents the commission provided after the AP requested all conversations relating to Hillsdale College and their charter school affiliates. Most of the records showed commission staffers helping applicants navigate the appeals process, telling them what information was needed and offering appeals training.

But the documents also included texts as staffers watched the fallout of Arnn’s disparaging remarks on teachers as local school boards in Rutherford, Jackson-Madison and Clarksville-Montgomery school board denied the Hillsdale-affiliated applications.

“Are we having fun yet?” texted Tess Stovall, commission executive director, on Aug. 10 after sending a link to a news article on the panel’s independence being tested. “I like my quotes.”

During the Rutherford County school board meeting on July 18, Ingle and Figueroa texted while watching the livestream. When no one showed from the Hillsdale-affiliated school to defend their application, both expressed alarm. Board members voted 6-1 to reject the charter.

Ingle wrote, “Beth, that’s a tough look.”

“This does not help us,” Ingle continued. He said the Rutherford school board member who voted against rejecting Hillsdale calls him “once a quarter.”

The text messages drew further skepticism about the commission from Jim Wrye, a representative of Tennessee’s largest organization representing educators.

“The administration sold the state charter commission to the General Assembly as a neutral appellate body,” Wrye, Tennessee Education Association government relations director, told the AP. “We believed the goal was to undermine local control and drop charter schools on communities that do not want them. That belief is only growing.”

In 2010, Hillsdale began establishing charter schools nationwide. Hillsdale maintains it does not operate or manage them, but instead offers support by licensing their curriculum for free and providing training and other resources to so-called member schools.

Tennessee’s state commission could overrule local decision-makers on Hillsdale-affiliated schools. Or, the panel could spike them after Arnn’s comments, 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.

Asked about the texts, the commission said staffers regularly monitor local school board meetings to stay “fully prepared” for potential appeals.

“(At) the time of these text messages, commission staff was anticipating 16 new start appeals. Of those 16 possible appeals, we are currently handling 13 public charter school appeals, an unprecedented number in Tennessee since the state started hearing appeals in 2002,” Ingle said via email, noting the commission only had three appeals last year, its first year operating.

Any charter school approved at the local level spares the commission from the time and effort required for additional appeals, Ingle said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Jeff Yarbro questioned the commission’s logic, saying, “Hillsdale’s poor showing only makes the commission’s job harder if their mandate is to greenlight new schools.”

“The commission shouldn’t have a rooting interest in the charter schools under review,” Yarbro told the AP. “Here, the danger is a commission and staff focused on opening more charters rather than ensuring a fair and independent process.”

Tennessee’s Charter School Commission was formed in 2019. Rep. Mark White, the Republican who sponsored the legislation backed by Gov. Lee, said at the time the proposal would move the charter school appeals process from the state education board — which has a wide variety of oversight responsibilities — to a new charter-focused panel.

White, who joined in widespread outcry against Arnn’s comments, told the AP he still believes the state commission is the best option for vetting and ensuring Tennessee has quality charter schools. He said the text messages show staffers carefully watch the proceedings because it would affect their workload.

“I know where they’re coming from, and I know they’re solid,” he said.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Tess Stovall’s last name.

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