Since then, three school boards have rejected applications for three Hillsdale-affiliated charter school applications. And the Associated Press reported that when Lee was asked recently if he still held a “wholehearted embrace” of Hillsdale, the governor said he had talked to Arnn “maybe five times” in the past two years.
What happens in Tennessee, of course, won’t stop the spread of Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools. This piece looks at one way this network is growing, in this case with the help of Academica, the country’s largest for-profit education management company. It was written by Darcie Cimarusti, communications director for the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for public education.
Hillsdale College is a small, nondenominational Christian school in Michigan with a satellite campus on Capitol Hill. Hillsdale President Larry Arnn headed former president Trump’s 1776 Commission, and last year Hillsdale College released a “1776 Curriculum” as a counter to the New York Times’ 1619 Project and its corresponding K-12 curriculum.
Hillsdale spreads the gospel of the right-wing through their K-12 curriculum and the Barney Charter School Initiative, which currently claims member schools in nine states across the country and “curriculum schools” in 19 states. The college’s mission to maintain “by precept and example the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith” morphs into a call for “moral virtue” in their K-12 charter schools.
The school’s expanding K-12 footprint aligns with former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s admission that “greater Kingdom gain” is the ultimate outcome of the religious right’s school choice agenda. Hillsdale has made gains in this aim via charter schools, which are publicly funded but operated by entities outside traditional school districts.
Hillsdale does not “own, govern, manage, or profit from” the charter schools they work with, and they do not charge for their curriculum. But Florida-based Academica, the largest for-profit education management organization (EMO) in the nation, stands to make money on Hillsdale’s crusade.
Hillsdale’s classical charter school initiative was designed to turn the tide on what the college sees as “a hundred years of progressivism” in public education. Charter schools that contract with Hillsdale agree to center Western tradition in their K-12 curriculum, and to focus on the “four core disciplines of math, science, literature, and history.” Students must learn Latin and receive explicit instruction in phonics and grammar. The core disciplines are taught through the reading of primary source material [fcalv.net] and the “great books” which are also chosen to guide students’ moral development. Hillsdale’s curriculum not only narrows the course of study available to students, it rewrites American history, particularly when it comes to civil rights.
The American Legacy Academy (ALA) was recently approved to open in the Weld RE-4 School District in Colorado. According to ALA’s website, the charter school will offer a back-to-basics, classical education as a Hillsdale College curriculum school. The approval of the charter school is a victory for local culture warriors who have stormed board meetings with grievances over masks and critical race theory.
New, large housing developments are leading to significant population growth and a severe public school capacity problem in the Weld RE-4 district. Nevertheless, in November 2021 voters rejected a bond initiative to build new public schools, leaving district officials to lament that they “have a problem without a clear solution.”
Since the bond’s defeat, district employees and community members have been working together to educate the community and put together another bond proposal. A district survey showed that 70 percent of residents favored a “district-built, traditional or non-charter school” in RainDance, one of the new neighborhoods.
But the supporters of ALA and the for-profit charter chain Academica have different plans. Academica is working closely with ALA’s founding board to open the charter through its related organization, Academica Colorado. According to ALA’s application, Academica Colorado will provide comprehensive services to the charter school.
Working hand-in-hand with Academica, ALA tried to purchase the RainDance property from the district for $2.1 million to build a charter school. Craig Horton, executive director of Academica Colorado, was the first member of the public to speak in favor of the purchase at a recent board meeting, just before board members voted down the proposal. Horton stated: “We’re providing a tax-free solution for two elementary schools. You’re walking away from the ability to relieve overcrowding and save taxpayers up to $80 million by building two charter schools in place of two elementary schools.”
At the meeting, ALA supporters said they would only support the district’s bond effort if the charter is approved, essentially holding the education of the district’s students hostage.
However, there are parents in the district who want to see a neighborhood public school on the property, not a Hillsdale charter school affiliated with Academica. They, too, spoke out. Autumn Leopold and Kimberly Kee, who administer a private Facebook group called RE4 Families Want Schools For All, told a local reporter: “We really just want a compromise that works for everyone and serves the entire community.”
Conservative culture wars
What is playing out in the Weld RE-4 district is part of a greater conflict in the state. A recent poll of Colorado voters showed a growing split in support for charter schools. Only 36 percent of Democrats polled expressed support, compared to 79 percent of Republicans. Perhaps most telling are the reasons. Among the reasons Republicans say in the poll that they favor charter schools is because they don’t teach a left-wing agenda while some Democrats and Independents oppose charter schools because they see them as religious.
The entrance of ALA follows raucous school board meetings over mask mandates, critical race theory, and other hot-button cultural issues that have been playing out in Weld RE-4 for some time. Tensions ultimately boiled over, leading to an unsuccessful campaign led by local resident Luke Alles to oust two board members. Alles is the executive chair of Guardians of RE-4, a local group “founded by three patriot families” that is pushing for the ALA charter school to open.
The first link on the Guardians website resources page is to the Colorado Department of Education’s “Charter School FAQ.” Another leads to a recently released film titled “Whose Children Are They?” The documentary-style film was produced by Deborah Flora, a syndicated conservative Christian talk radio host and failed Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. When the film was released in March, Flora simultaneously announced that she was founding a new nonprofit, Parents United America, which she created to defend “parental rights” against “ideological state guardianship.”
The film is a veritable who’s who of the culture wars. Parents and teachers active in CRT battles are given voice, as are dozens more who claim public schools are grooming children through LGBTQ-infused curriculum and disadvantaging female athletes by allowing trans girls to compete in sports.
Representatives from organizations identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as hate or extremist groups make appearances, as do spokespeople for conservative Koch-funded groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Enterprise Institute.
The overarching narrative is that the ultimate villains are the teachers’ unions and the U.S. Department of Education. Conservative political activist and writer David Horowitz, [whose group is] considered an extremist group by SPLC, claims teacher unions have been infiltrated and are controlled by Communists. Public School Exit founder Alex Newman suggests that the Education Department was formed not only to teach Communist propaganda but to “de-Christianize” and “make the schools less patriotic.” The film claims this campaign began 100 years ago when progressives like John Dewey “intentionally undermined our education system.”
In early 2022, Fox News host Pete Hegseth launched a five-part series, “The MisEducation of America” on Fox Nation. The series shares the same themes, a similar format, and many of the same interview subjects as “Whose Children Are They?” “MisEducation,” which Hegseth claims is the most watched content on Fox Nation, supposedly “uncovers the secrets of the left’s educational agenda.”
In the fifth and final episode, titled “Our COVID- (16) 19 Moment,” the “experts” agree on this: the only path forward is for parents to remove children from the public school system and place them in Classical Christian Schools. If that’s not an option for families, they suggest a classical charter school.
ALA will not be the first classical charter in Colorado. According to the 2019 Colorado Department of Education State of Charter Schools Triennial Report, 24 of the state’s 255 charter schools followed a classical curriculum in the 2018-19 school year.
Academica’s Craig Horton, a retired police officer, was a founding board member of a prominent classical charter, Liberty Common Charter School. Liberty’s headmaster Bob Shaffer is prominently featured in “Whose Children Are They?” — as is Kim Gilmartin, director of New School Development for Ascent Classical Academies.
Ascent, which is a Hillsdale College-affiliated CMO in Colorado, has two classical charter schools in the state, with ambitious plans to open several more.
Horton was also heavily involved in the formation of CIVICA Colorado, part of a national CMO CIVICA, which contracts with Academica. While CIVICA does not formally claim to be a classical charter, CIVICA principal Sheena McOuat stated: “I make sure a lot of politics that are in other schools, sex ed or critical race, they don’t come into my building and it aligns with a lot of people.” McOuat’s husband, Corey McOuat, is one of the founding board members of the American Legacy Academy.
The Colorado Department of Education, which recently revealed that it is struggling to spend down a $55 million dollar federal Charter School Program (CSP) award the state received in 2018, still went ahead and awarded CIVICA a $990,000 start-up grant. ALA hasn’t applied for CSP funds yet, but when representatives appeared before the Weld RE-4 board, they spoke confidently about access to a million-dollar grant.
The new Academica classical brand CIVICA is moving into Wyoming as well. Its Republican governor and legislature recently cleared the way for charter schools by passing legislation to take the decision out of the hands of local school districts and give it to a political body. The State Loan and Investment Board now has the ability to approve charters and is currently composed of Gov. Mark Gordon, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, Auditor Kristi Racines, Treasurer Curt Meier, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder. All of them are Republicans.
Horton, with the assistance of high-ranking state Republicans and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is now attempting to open two new classical charters in Wyoming. The two schools — Wyoming Classical Academy and Cheyenne Classical Academy — which propose to open in the fall of 2023, will be Hillsdale College Member School Candidates.
Schroeder, the head of a private Christian school recently appointed state superintendent, attended a parent information meeting hosted by the Cheyenne Classical Academy at the Cheyenne Evangelical Free Church. He told the gathering of prospective charter school parents that “the evangelists of secularism saw two institutions, government and education, as the perfect twin vehicles through which they would remake society in their image.”
Conservative Christian Republicans are now positioning themselves, with the help of Academica and the charter lobby, to use taxpayer funds to challenge “the evangelists of secularism” with a national push for classical charter schools.
Meanwhile, the Weld RE-4 school board’s approval of American Legacy Academy’s application paves the way for two Hillsdale classical charter schools in the district. The schools will ultimately serve approximately 1,300 students, feeding them directly into the Hillsdale pipeline of conservative thinkers trying to “save the country.”
At scale, the approval could also add, at minimum, $580,000 a year to Academica’s bottom line. In the charter application, enrollment figures show that the two charters will serve 1,296 kids in total. In the draft contract between ALA and Academica, the base compensation is $450 per student. If 1,296 students are indeed enrolled, Academica would earn $583,200, not including earnings for facilities and other services.