by Nathan Warf
In a previous post in this series, I briefly reviewed Governor Bill Lee’s education savings account plan. Under questionable circumstances, the General Assembly approved a pilot program for school vouchers in Metro Nashville and Shelby County. The program has been ruled as unconstitutional by two courts and is awaiting final determination by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
With this strategy to divest from public schools halted, Governor Lee has turned his attention to another tactic: charter schools.
Charter School Partnership with Hillsdale College
In his “State of the State” address, Governor Lee referenced President Reagan’s call for “informed patriotism.” Lee said that “now more than ever it is important that we teach true American history, unbiased and non-political.” To this end, he spoke of how he “traveled to Hillsdale College to … spend time with champions of American exceptionalism.” Lee continued, “I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee, and we are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education.”
What sort of partnership is Governor Lee proposing? What sort of civics education does Hillsdale promote? Is a history education aimed at instilling patriotism and a sense of American exceptionalism consistent with Lee’s own criteria of unbiased and non-political truth?
Hillsdale is a private Christian college in rural Michigan. With approximately 1,500 students, it is even smaller than Freed-Hardeman. Hillsdale is known for its refusal to accept federal or state money for student grants, loans, or scholarships. Their intention is to be “free … from educational regulation and programs imposed by the government.”
In a speech at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn announced that he would be having lunch with Governor Lee “because [Lee’s] wanting to save the country, and he wants charter schools, and we know a lot about that.” Arnn later reported that Governor Lee requested that Hillsdale establish 100 charter schools across the state. He agreed to a commitment of fifty.
We could have a legitimate debate about charter schools. Proponents argue that they allow for innovative teaching strategies and provide parents with options in educating their children, particularly as an alternative to poorly performing public schools. Critics argue that charter schools often lack transparency, pull resources away from struggling school districts, and use questionable tactics to manipulate student enrollment (i.e., to “get the students they want”).
However, the present issue is not just whether Tennessee should expand charter school options; the issue is also the role Hillsdale should play. Governor Lee is clear about why he favors the school: he likes the American exceptionalism promoted by their approach to civics education. This approach is detailed in Hillsdale’s “1776 Curriculum,” which is a clear allusion to the 1776 Commission established by outgoing President Trump in November 2020. In the wake of the New York Times Magazine’s controversial 1619 Project, Trump tasked the commission with producing a report “regarding the core principles of the American founding.” The report was intended as a response to “a series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship [that] has vilified our Founders and our founding” wherein “students are now taught … to hate their own country.”
The Trump Administration touted the report as “a definitive chronicle of the American founding,” yet, like the 1619 Project before it, the 1776 Curriculum has been roundly criticized. The American Historical Association issued a statement condemning the report for being hastily written after only two meetings, and Politico reported that much of it was “lifted or recycled from other publications.” While professional historians were not included on the commission, Hillsdale played an outsized role. The chair of the commission was Hillsdale President Larry Arnn; the executive director was Matthew Spalding, Hillsdale’s VP of Washington Operations. Commission meetings were held at Hillsdale’s D.C. campus.
Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum is over 2,400 pages of free content. It borrows frequently from the 1776 Report and is, in many ways, an expansion of it. I’ve downloaded the massive file and reviewed it for myself. There are some things worth praising. For instance, I appreciate the emphasis on primary documents. The curriculum is refreshingly rigorous. However, the curriculum is not what Hillsdale claims it to be. In an interview with Real Clear Education, Hillsdale’s assistant provost of K-12 education Katherine O’Toole said, “Unlike the 1619 Project and its politicized curricula, the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum doesn’t use history as a weapon to fight current political battles.” Nonetheless, the curriculum necessarily makes choices, and those choices are political. Matthew Spalding, the Hillsdale VP mentioned above, said:
The teaching of honest history and an accurate account of civics is the key to forming good citizens. The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum has been carefully designed to do just that, providing parents, teachers, and schools not with what they should oppose, but with a solid curriculum they can wholeheartedly endorse for all of America’s children.
But education, as Aristotle noted more than two millennia ago, is about learning “both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” Hillsdale knows this. Their curriculum is full of their assessment about what American children should be taught to praise and oppose. The curriculum deifies the founders, emphasizes natural rights, and extols American exceptionalism. Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan hold places of honor. Singled out for criticism are the Progressives of the early 1900s and the thinkers who influenced their thought. Indeed, one assignment asks students to “Explain how the Progressives rejected America’s principles and the Founders’ understandings of rights, equality, human nature, and the purpose of government.” Another question asks, “How and why did the Progressives reject the Declaration of Independence, natural rights, and social contract theory?” The curriculum critiques “bureaucratic expertise,” the “administrative state,” FDR’s New Deal, and LBJ’s Great Society.
A later unit addresses the “new Progressives” who were influenced by Marx, Gramsci, and Marcuse. It teaches that this New Left rejects objective truth and morality and believes that “the role of politics, the government, and bureaucracy is to delegitimize objective moral standards of conduct and to reallocate power and freedom away from the privileged group to the underprivileged.” To do this, the government must target “traditional supports and products of objective truth and morality in American society: the family, religious belief, and a cultural adherence to the rules and norms of self-government.” From there, the lesson plans criticize a wide variety of concerns: political correctness, the feminist movement, environmentalism, pragmatism, judicial activism, criminal rights, lenient sentencing, the right to privacy, secularism, gun control, relativism, social justice, affirmative action, critical race theory, identity politics, diversity training, and cancel culture.
In contrast to the Progressives, there are the “constitutionalists,” who are also called conservatives. They reject a “living Constitution” to uphold the original intent of the founders and “emphasize secure borders, economic nationalism, a moral outlook reflective of the founding generation, and an American-centric foreign policy as policy manifestations of those principles.”
Some conservatives, particularly those with a libertarian, nationalist, or populist bent, will likely find much of this curriculum attractive. They should not, however, pretend that the study is objectively true or politically neutral. There are very real fights in our country about who we ought to be. Much of this contention is likely rooted in disagreements about who we are and who we have been. The path forward should not be the adoption of one partisan narrative or another. Instead, we need dialectic in the Aristotelian sense, a reasoned conversation of various perspectives for the purpose of better understanding truth.
The General Assembly
While Governor Lee has been pursuing school vouchers and a partnership with Hillsdale, the TN General Assembly has also been considering several changes in education.
One of these is SB2168, a bill that does a few things regarding charter schools. First, it speeds up the process for authorizing a new charter school. Second, if a local school district rejects an application for a new charter school, the bill allows an applicant to go directly to a state commission for approval. Once a governing body has operated a charter school for a year, they can bypass local school districts by applying for “replication” directly to the state commission. Finally, local education agencies (LEAs) are required to catalog all “underutilized or vacant properties owned or operated by the LEA.” (An LEA is a public authority, like a board of education, that manages a local public school system.) A underutilized property is one “in which more than fifty percent (50%) of a building located on the property is not being used for direct academic instruction … including, but not limited to, spaces suitable for classroom use that are currently being used for storage.” A charter school may then “lease for no cost or purchase for one dollar ($1.00) any underutilized or vacant property” and enjoy “unrestricted use of the property.” Again, this can be done over the objections of the local taxpayers.
To make matters worse, the Senate Education Committee killed SB0938, which aimed to increase transparency in charter schools. This bill would subject charter schools and their management organizations to open records laws, meaning they would be required to disclose employee salaries, describe large contracts, and account for all money received by the school.
Furthermore, Governor Lee signed into law a new formula for how the state funds public education. This new formula, known as TISA, is a “student-centered” plan because money follows students. Critics are concerned that the policy is a “gateway” toward accomplishing Lee’s goal of privatizing education. He denies any connection.
Beyond undermining public education by diverting resources, the GA has also demonstrated how little they trust educators in the public school system. Thankfully, the GA killed an absurd bill that would prevent teachers from using any “supplemental material” not approved by the state board of education. The bill provided an approval process for the state board to review potential teaching materials, a review process that included public notice and comment. If enacted, the legislation was projected to cost the state approximately $14 million a year.
On the other hand, the GA did not reject SB0623, a bill that forbids K-12 teachers from discussing concepts like white privilege and systemic racism. Teachers are not forbidden from “an impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history,” but they are not allowed to “[promote] division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.” If the commissioner of education finds an LEA to be in violation of these vague and subjective standards, “then the commissioner shall withhold state funds, in an amount determined by the commissioner.” Belmont law professor David Hudson said of the law: “This is a poorly written bill that promotes a specific agenda, threatens academic freedom, and suffers from serious overbreadth and vagueness problems.” Litigation can certainly be expected.
If this law was not bad enough, the General Assembly later passed HB2670, a bill extending the restrictions regarding “divisive concepts” to public colleges. Though the bill is not to be interpreted as infringing on free speech rights or academic freedom for faculty, there will be a chilling effect because anyone who feels the law has been violated may bring suit.
Finally, the GA wants to regulate the books in school libraries. With SB2407, the General Assembly requires all schools to maintain a list of their library materials and post it on their website. School boards are tasked with developing a review process for ensuring the collection is age appropriate. This process must include a mechanism to receive feedback from students, parents, and school employees. The school must remove material that is deemed inappropriate for student age or is considered inconsistent with the educational mission of the school. SB2247 goes a step further, allowing a state commission to override local decisions and impose statewide book bans. Rep. Jerry Sexton made national news by saying on the House floor that he would burn the objectionable books.
Taken together, TN’s legislative action seems to undercut public education. Public schools have long been foundational for our system of government to function. They provide opportunities for everyone, including the most vulnerable. Access to a quality education provides dividends for individuals, and through them, to the whole community.
The conclusion to this post is essentially the same as the conclusion to the series on Tennessee politics. Pay attention to what is going on. Expect more from our leaders.
In my American Politics course, we briefly contrast the “delegate” and “trustee” models of representation. Delegates strictly follow the wishes of their constituents while trustees are entrusted to use their best judgment for the common good. I would argue that too many politicians, of both political parties, are acting as delegates—only now their “constituents” are merely the loudest voices and the deepest pockets. Political action then becomes performative, theater for the increasingly extreme base. This drives citizens into disgust with politics, all too often leading them to the sidelines, thereby encouraging the cycle to continue.
 Governor Bill Lee, “State of the State Address,” 31 January 2022. https://www.tn.gov/governor/sots/2022-state-of-the-state-address.html.
 Larry Arnn, “Education and American Politics,” Speech at Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, April 2021. https://youtu.be/GOYKDtKql5k.
 Jackie DelPilar, “Governor Bill Lee announces new charter school partnership with private Christian college,” Fox 17, 3 February 2022, https://fox17.com/news/local/governor-bill-lee-announces-new-charter-school-partnership-with-private-christian-college. See also https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/ for audio of Arnn’s comments.
 See, e.g., “Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act of 2002,” Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-13-102.
 See, e.g., Tennessee Public Education Association, “How charter schools and vouchers harm Tennessee students,” The Tennessean, 10 March 2022, https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2022/03/10/tennessee-educaiton-charter-schools-tennessee-public-education-coalition/9422346002/; Kevin G. Welner, “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment,” Teachers College Record, 22 April 2013, http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=17104.
 Donald Trump, “Executive Order on Establishing the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission,” 2 November 2020. https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-establishing-presidents-advisory-1776-commission/; see also Kathryn Watson & Grace Segers, “Trump blasts 1619 Project on role of Black Americans and proposes his own ‘1776 commission,’” CBS News, 18 September 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-1619-project-1776-commission/.
 “1776 Commission Takes Historic and Scholarly Step to Restore Understanding of the Greatness of the American Founding,” White House Press Release, 18 January 2021, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/1776-commission-takes-historic-scholarly-step-restore-understanding-greatness-american-founding/.
 “AHA Condemns Report of the Advisory 1776 Commission,” American Historical Association, 21 January 2021, https://www.historians.org/news-and-advocacy/aha-advocacy/aha-statement-condemning-report-of-advisory-1776-commission-(january-2021); forty-seven other organizations signed onto the statement; Tina Nguyen, “A big chunk of Trump’s 1776 report appears lifted from an author’s prior work,” Politico, 19 January 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/19/trump-1776-report-plagiarism-460464.
 See John Fea, “Trump announces members of his ‘President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.’ There are no American historians,” Current, 18 January 2021, https://staging2.currentpub.com/2020/12/18/trump-announces-members-of-his-presidents-advisory-1776-commission-there-are-no-american-historians/; David Drucker, “Trump 1776 Commission to meet despite being abolished by Biden,” Washington Examiner, 21 May 2021, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/campaigns/trump-1776-commission-meet-despite-abolished-biden.
 John Hirschauer, “Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum,” Real Clear Education, 30 July 2021, https://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2021/07/30/hillsdale_colleges_1776_curriculum_110614.html.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II.3, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html.
 See, e.g., Joshua Tait, “The Origins of Trump’s Slapdash, Last-Second ‘1776 Report’,” The Bulwark, 22 January 2021, https://www.thebulwark.com/the-origins-of-trumps-slapdash-last-second-1776-report/; Tevi Troy, “Why Some Intellectuals Are Breaking for Trump,” Politico, 6 November 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/conservative-intellectuals-trump-2016-politics-policy-214424/.
 “The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum,” Hillsdale College (2021), 1988-90; 2006.
 Ibid., 2250-64.
 Ibid., 2000-02.
 TN Code § 49-1-103 (2020).
 SB2168 https://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/112/Bill/SB2168.pdf.
 SB0938 https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/default.aspx?BillNumber=SB0938&GA=112.
 See Marta Aldrich, “Tennessee governor’s education funding overhaul passes legislature,” Chalkbeat, 28 April 2022, https://tn.chalkbeat.org/2022/4/28/23046905/tisa-funding-formula-tennessee-legislature-governor-lee; Kimberlee Kruesi, “Lee: Education funding review not related to school vouchers,” Associated Press, 21 December 2021, https://apnews.com/article/education-tennessee-school-vouchers-2bd1d6ffbfb555ea665e5574e15b1499.
 SB0659 https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/Default.aspx?BillNumber=SB0659; https://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/112/Bill/SB0659.pdf.
 “Conference Committee Report on House Bill No. 580 / Senate Bill No. 623,” https://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/112/CCRReports/CC0003.pdf; see also Marta Aldrich, “Tennessee governor signs bill restricting how race and bias can be taught in schools,” Chalkbeat, 24 May 2021, https://tn.chalkbeat.org/2021/5/24/22452478/tennessee-governor-signs-bill-restricting-how-race-and-bias-can-be-taught-in-schools.
 Cathryn Stout, “ Legal scholars question Tennessee’s new bill restricting how educators teach about racial injustice,” Chalkbeat, 16 May 2021, https://tn.chalkbeat.org/2021/5/16/22437076/legal-scholars-question-tennessees-new-bill-restricting-critical-race-theory.
 HB2670 https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/Default.aspx?BillNumber=HB2670&GA=110; https://legiscan.com/TN/text/HB2670/2021.
 SB2407 https://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/112/Bill/SB2407.pdf.
 SB2247 https://legiscan.com/TN/amendment/SB2247/id/141272; Mariana Alfaro and Amy Wang, “Tennessee lawmaker suggests burning banned books,” The Washington Post, 27 April 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/27/tennessee-burning-banned-books/.