Rhetoric vs. Reality: Hillsdale Charters, Common Core, and the TNGOP
It's not about policy, it's about power
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Back in January of 2022, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee extolled the virtues of American Exceptionalism and noted that he’d be working with a network of charter schools backed by Hillsdale College to bring the philosophy to the state’s K-12 students.
Hillsdale applied to open charter schools in three districts (Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford) but ran into some trouble after the President of Hillsdale insulted educators.
Not only were Hillsdale’s applications rejected in all three districts, but Hillsdale also pulled their appeals in the heat of the 2022 campaign cycle.
Ostensibly, Hillsdale’s charters would offer something different - a “classical” education.
Despite the early rocky reception, Hillsdale came back this year with applications in five districts - Madison, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, and Rutherford.
Sure, the schools would carry a heavy cost to taxpayers - roughly $7 million in additional expenses each year in each district - but Lee and his political allies suggested the burden was worth it.
That’s why recent revelations that Hillsdale’s charter schools plan to rely on Common Core-aligned curriculum are so interesting. No, not shocking. By now, no one should be surprised that Lee seeks to privatize at all costs - that his words on “classical” education and his opposition to Common Core are nothing more than political theatre.
Here’s more on that:
According to Chalkbeat, Tennessee officially repealed Common Core standards in 2015 and transitioned in 2017 to revised academic standards that were billed as homegrown. Legislative efforts to purge the Volunteer State of all vestiges of Common Core persisted for several more years.
During the pandemic in 2021, Governor Bill Lee sought to close what he called a lingering “Common Core loophole” with legislation banning teachers from using educational resources “marketed or otherwise identified as Common Core textbooks or materials.” Lee even pushed to allow the state to withhold funds from school districts caught using Common Core materials. Upon signing the Common Core materials ban into law, Lee stated in a tweet: “I promised that we would root out Common Core in TN public schools, and we’ve made tackling this issue a key legislative initiative.”
If Tennessee is rooting out Common Core in its schools, why is it inviting a charter network proposing to use Core-aligned materials in its schools?
All of ACE’s charter applications in Tennessee — each signed by [Former Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores} Gresham, the ACE board chair — include a list of 16 requested waivers from state law and policies. Near the bottom of the waiver list is an item described as “use of unapproved textbooks.” Specifically, the item requests relief from Tennessee Code Annotated 49-6-2206 — which is a statute entitled, “Use of Common Core textbooks or materials prohibited.”
ACE’s waiver requests don’t specifically mention Common Core, but instead note that the proposed schools’ “curriculum and instructional approaches will be linked to [each] school’s mission and philosophy” as well as curricular materials detailed in the applications. ACE’s curricular materials are based on Core Knowledge — which, again, is connected to Common Core.
There’s a lot more on the Hillsdale/ACE/Common Core connection here.
Interestingly, the County Mayors in Rutherford (Joe Carr) and Maury (Sheila Butt) both are eager to have Hillsdale charters in their communities but also both have a record of opposing Common Core:
For example, then-State Representative Joe Carr, who now serves as Rutherford County mayor, issued a statement to Breitbart News saying that Common Core amounted to “centralized education.” Similarly, then-State Representative Sheila Butt, who now serves as Maury County mayor, penned an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Herald pledging to eliminate Common Core and in 2015 co-sponsored a bill to repeal the standards. (More recently, however, Butt reversed course with public statements voicing support for ACE’s Common Core-aligned “classical school curriculum.”)
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In response to being exposed as the Chair of a charter school board promoting Common Core, ACE’s Dolores Gresham issued a defense in right-wing media mouthpiece (and recipient of ACE Charter advertising dollars) The Tennessee Star:
Gresham says, in part:
“Additionally, the Tennessee Department of Education adopted Core Knowledge for use in its Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) Skills curriculum.”
This statement seems to suggest that sense the Department of Education adopted Core Knowledge AND Gov. Lee “banned” Common Core, the state’s approved curriculum simply can’t be Common Core-aligned.
In a 34-page compendium of “Frequently Asked Questions” published in 2017, the Core Knowledge Foundation noted that the organization’s language arts materials, known as CKLA, are “fully, and explicitly, aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).” The document repeatedly emphasized a deep and intentional connection with statements such as: “CKLA is 100% aligned to both the knowledge-building spirit of the standards and to each of the individual standards. At the individual standard level, the alignment is explicit: It is present at the domain level and unit level, as well as the lesson level; this explicit alignment is detailed in the teacher materials for the given domain or unit.”
There is, however, an alternative explanation:
Gov. Lee and his DOE as well as legislators (like Gresham) intimately familiar with state education policy know that state standards are Core-aligned and hosted bill signings about Core-banning in order to appease a base driven by the likes of Americans for Prosperity and fueled by vitriol from agitators funded from out of state like Moms for Liberty.
In fact, this wouldn’t be the first time Lee told one story to his rabid base while his policies told a different story:
Now, the problem is being caused by Wit and Wisdom, a curriculum backed by Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. Yes, that very same Penny Schwinn who was appointed by Gov. Bill Lee – you know, the Bill Lee from Williamson County who is pretty conservative, just ask him.
Yes, the very same Bill Lee who signed into law a bill banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.
But wait, Critical Race Theory is bad but Critical Race Theory is in Wit and Wisdom but Bill Lee is essentially forcing Wit and Wisdom on all school districts.
It’s almost as if when you are the party in power with a legislative supermajority, you come to believe you can do whatever you want and no one will notice or attempt to hold you accountable.
Now, it’s becoming clearer what Lee meant when he said he had a fondness for “exceptionalism.”