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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) gives the command to start engines prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) gives the command to start engines prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Right-Wing College Expanding Charter School Network to Combat 'Progressive' Teaching

"I've never seen a governor attempting to use charters in such an overtly political way," one scholar said after Tennessee invited Hillsdale College to open 50 schools in the state.

Kenny Stancil

Hillsdale College, a small conservative undergraduate institution in southern Michigan with ties to Republican elites, is expanding its nationwide network of K-12 charter schools in an attempt to take its battle against what it calls "progressive" and "leftist academics" to an even younger audience, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Thanks to donations from right-wing benefactors, Hillsdale has helped open about two dozen so-called "classical" charter schools, which "emphasize the centrality of the Western tradition," in 13 states since 2010. This endeavor is on the cusp of more than doubling in size, the Times reported, because Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently invited the college to start 50 schools in the state using public funds, including $32 million earmarked for charter facilities.

As the newspaper noted:

The Hillsdale charter schools are neither owned nor managed by Hillsdale. Instead, the schools enter agreements to use the Hillsdale curriculum and the college provides training for faculty and staff, as well as other assistance—all free of charge.

By offering these services, Hillsdale seems to be trying to thread a needle—creating a vast K-12 network that embraces its pedagogy and conservative philosophy, in many cases taught by its graduates, while tapping into government money to run the schools.

In the wake of the 1776 Commission led by former President Donald Trump, Hillsdale developed the "1776 Curriculum," which seeks to portray the United States as "an exceptionally good country." According to the Times, the college "has been criticized for its glossy spin on American history as well as its ideological tilt on topics like affirmative action. Educators and historians have also raised questions about other instruction at Hillsdale's charter schools, citing their negative take on the New Deal and the Great Society and cursory presentation of global warming."

Like Trump, who called for a "patriotic education," Lee wants to inculcate what he describes as "informed patriotism" in Tennessee students, and the governor sees his charter expansion plan as part of that effort.

"For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard-bearer in quality curriculum and in the responsibility of preserving American liberty," Lee told state lawmakers recently. "I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee."

Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the separation of church and state, urged people to "take alarm" as the Christian college "sink[s] its hooks" into taxpayer-funded charter schools with Lee's help.

Often promoted as alternatives to low-performing public schools in urban districts, charter schools have long been criticized for diverting taxpayer money from democratically accountable public schools to privately run institutions where low-performing students are sometimes dismissed to boost test scores, and roughly 50% of buildings shut their doors within 15 years.

In Tennessee, charter schools have been concentrated in the state's four largest cities, but Lee envisions "an expansion into suburban and rural areas where, like many Hillsdale charter schools, they would most likely enroll children who are whiter and more affluent than the average charter school pupil," the Times reported. "In that way, the Hillsdale schools could be something of a publicly funded off-ramp for conservative parents who think their local schools misinterpret history and push a socially progressive agenda on issues from race and diversity to sexuality and gender."

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, told the newspaper that "I've been following charter schools over the last 25 years, and I've never seen a governor attempting to use charters in such an overtly political way."

"You've had governors who've encouraged the growth of charters to provide more high-quality options for parents," said Fuller, "but it's highly unusual to see a governor deploy the charter mechanism for admittedly political purposes."

Meanwhile, other privatization tactics in the decadeslong and multi-faceted war on public education have had explicitly right-wing political aims.

For instance, vouchers—the mid-1950s brainchild of economist Milton Friedman, a chief architect of the neoliberal assault on public goods and unions—gained immediate popularity among segregationists eager to abandon public schools to avoid racial integration.

As historian Nancy MacLean has shown, "school 'choice' was a way station on the route to radical privatization."

Reporting on Hillsdale's plans to open 50 GOP-aligned charter schools in Tennessee comes as a far-right censorship campaign and broader attacks on public school students and teachers sweep the country.

A recent analysis by PEN America detailed an unprecedented nationwide surge in book banning, with 86 school districts in 26 states prohibiting more than 1,100 titles in classrooms and libraries since last July.

In addition, according to PEN America, GOP lawmakers in 40 states have introduced more than 175 bills since January 2021 that seek to limit the ability of educators and students to discuss gender, racism, and other topics—including a growing number of proposals to establish so-called "tip lines" that would empower parents to discipline teachers. Fifteen educational gag orders have been enacted in just over a dozen states.

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