Tennessee Governor Invites Hillsdale College to Open 50 Charter Schools
Clarification: Hillsdale has asked us to make clear: “that the funding provided by the state of TN for the schools will not come to Hillsdale College, as we do not charge any of our schools for any of our services and the College does not accept government funding.”
The pandemic dealt a huge blow to traditional public-school enrollment. The drop was 3% when COVID landed. But the decline continues into the present. It’s been largest among pre-K kids, with losses as high as 22% reported. That has government leaders scrambling. After all, pre-K is your pipeline for K-12. You have no choice but to innovate in ways that win back the confidence of families.
The concerns of parents aren’t limited to the now-obvious learning loss resulting from forced online schooling — where public employee unions blatantly put their own interests ahead of the children’s. Or needlessly extended mask mandates, even for young children, when face-to-face instruction returned. It’s also the leftward curricular drift and the kind of soft, behind-your-back indoctrination that led parents in Virginia last year to say, “Enough!”
Tennessee to Add Hillsdale Charter Schools
Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee has seen the signs. In the fall of 2020, charter schools saw a 7% jump in enrollment, adding some 240,000 students nationwide. Charter schools are publicly funded, but they’re run by private organizations. That gives them the freedom to innovate. It also makes them highly accountable to the parents who opt to enroll their children.
Governor Lee is encouraging all high-quality charter school operators to consider starting charter schools in Tennessee. The state already has 22 operators and 116 charter schools educating 44,000 students, 91% of whom are minorities. Many of these students reside in challenging neighborhoods. But Governor Lee has specifically invited Hillsdale College to open an additional 50 charter schools. And he’s making available as much as $32 million in public funds to boost this initiative. Lee considers Hillsdale College the standard-bearer in quality curriculum.
These new charter schools would not be owned or managed by Hillsdale College. Like other charter schools, they’d be run by private outfits. But they would use Hillsdale’s classical education curriculum, and their faculty and staff would be trained by Hillsdale personnel.
Hillsdale’s charter school network already includes 24 schools in 13 states. Still, adding 50 schools is a big deal. It’d triple Hillsdale’s footprint in the charter space. Hillsdale has also launched a Graduate School of Classical Education, with plans to enroll their first students in the Fall of 2022. The initiative is quite timely. Even pre-COVID, classical education was seeing exponential growth. The last few years have only extended the popularity of the classical education model. Many of the new homeschooling families are also using classical education.
The 1776 Curriculum
Hillsdale has pioneered the 1776 Curriculum. It teaches that America, while imperfect in her history, is an exceptionally good nation. We’re governed by the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the oldest surviving written Constitution in human history. Our leaders are stewards, elected to represent the will of the citizenry, to whom they remain accountable. We hire them. They work for us. Our rights come from God, not our government.
Critics say that the 1776 Curriculum paints a rosy picture of American history. But it’s noteworthy that Hillsdale College was founded in the 1840s by abolitionists — hardly a group of people unwilling to face the evils of American slavery. But they understood, like future civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., that the enduring principles in our nation’s founding documents were incompatible with institutional racism.
Folks can decide for themselves if the curriculum is fair. Because Hillsdale has generously made the whole thing freely available for download. Moreover, the curriculum provides teachers with guidance — not dictates — about how to plan and teach a given topic in American history or civics.
The curriculum is divided into age-appropriate grade units — K-2nd, 3rd-5th, middle school and high school. For now, it deals with three broad topics: America’s founding, the Civil War and civics.
What About Private Schools or Vouchers?
Some may wish that Governor Lee’s initiative went further. The Hilldale charter schools will not, after all, be Christian schools. Nor can families use their tax dollars to send their kids to a private school. Tennessee had a voucher program that allowed eligible families to use tax dollars for private schooling. But it was ruled unconstitutional in 2020. A 2022 version of this legislation changed the eligibility requirement. If your school system didn’t provide in-person learning all year, you could use public funds for private school. But this legislation has stalled for now.
Remember that conservatives are divided over vouchers. Many K-12 private or homeschool support organizations, like the Home School Legal Defense Association, oppose vouchers. They fear that government control inevitably follows government funds.
But 50 new charter schools in Tennessee would certainly shake up the public education space. They’d give families more choice as to where their children can enroll at no extra cost. And the Hillsdale curriculum is a whole lot better than what these kids would otherwise get.
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).