It may be too late to stop the approval of two Wyoming charter schools associated with a small Michigan Christian college.

Opinion

But anyone who opposes public education dollars being diverted for the “patriotic education” Hillsdale College wants to give students here should raise a ruckus while they still can.

It doesn’t take a deep examination of how the nondenominational Christian school has become the darling of the far-right to recognize that Wyoming proponents have followed the college’s playbook. Hillsdale’s charter school expansion to nine states is driven by hefty political power wielded at the state level, especially the legislative branch.

On Wednesday, the five statewide officials on the State Loan and Investment Board will hear a proposal for a new charter school, the Cheyenne Classical Academy, founded by Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne). Like the Wyoming Classical Academy in Mills, which made its SLIB presentation last week, it uses Hillsdale’s curriculum from the “Barney Charter School Initiative.” However, the schools would be operated independently and overseen by different boards.

Before 2021, the state’s five charter schools located in Cheyenne, Laramie and Riverton were approved by local school districts. None are affiliated with controversial Hillsdale.

What’s driving the effort to get state officials to give their blessing to Wyoming Classical and Cheyenne Classical schools?

Russ Donley, a former Speaker of the House who chairs the Mills school’s board of trustees, explained his motivation to the Cowboy State Daily. Coupled with the history of Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools, it’s a disturbing picture of how his school will operate.

“I was watching the beautiful young people marching to change America into a socialistic country, and that type of thing, back in 2020,” Donley said. “And I thought, that’s what’s wrong, it’s just education: people don’t understand what a great country this is, and how it should be, and what was intended by our founders.”

He’s talking, of course, about Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer.  

There is absolutely nothing “socialistic” about opposing systemic racism, but the far-right uses the word to tar a movement that has brought people of all ages and ethnicities together as somehow un-American. In sharp contrast to widespread but untruthful claims that BLM protests were violent, the Washington Post reported that 96% of the events involved no property damage or injuries to participants, bystanders or police.

Because getting a charter school approved by local public school boards has historically been a tough sell, Donley set out to change the laws governing the process. He pitched a bill to Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), co-chair of the Joint Education Committee. They liked Donley’s idea to give SLIB — the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction — the authority to approve charter schools.

Scott has tried to make major cuts in education spending for years, partly because he believes schools are underperforming on standardized tests. The House has successfully fought most of the reductions, but the stalemate has led to an annual education budget shortfall of about $300 million. The problem will be exacerbated by taking money away from already underfunded traditional public schools.

But Scott is an unabashed fan of Wyoming Classical Academy, which he maintained must offer a secular education. I’m not convinced it will meet that requirement to keep religion out of classrooms.

“Some of the education is known to be on the conservative side,” Scott told the Casper Star-Tribune. “That’s fine, what’s wrong with that? As long as they do a good job teaching kids the basics, I’m all for it.”

Here’s one thing that’s wrong, senator: There’s no mistaking the overall intent of the college’s curriculum, nor the way it has fomented parents’ fears about and anger at public schools.

Many Wyoming school boards have been targeted for issuing COVID-19 mask mandates to protect the health of students and staff. There’s been a host of other hot-button issues: banning teaching about “critical race theory,” keeping transgender athletes out of girls’ sports and banning gay-themed books, all countenanced by Hillsdale.

Many Republicans, though far from a majority, advocate for a war on public education. That’s not hyperbolic, it’s what Hillsdale President Larry Arnn has openly admitted. “Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it’s our weapon,” he said.

Hillsdale advocate Eric Swaim, head of a California-based right-wing think tank, urged parents at a church meeting to take their kids out of “government schools.”

“With your child comes the education dollars, and if your child isn’t in school, they won’t have the money, the [teacher] unions won’t get funded, and those schools will close down,” Swaim said.

Hillsdale charter schools in Wyoming will peel off some of that public money. It will fulfill the extreme-right’s goal of privatizing education based on “Judeo-Christian values” that the nation’s founders supposedly held, even though many were slave owners. Throughout the U.S.’s nearly 250-year history, the religious convictions of those who started this constitutional republic have been hotly debated.

Hillsdale stresses “moral virtue” in its K-12 schools. In a nation that has separation of church and state enshrined in its Constitution, whose morals and virtues will be taught? I strongly object to having a thinly-veiled religious agenda funded by taxpayers, and I suspect many residents of this independent-minded state feel the same way.

Hillsdale flaunts its religious and cultural biases. One of its publications, Imprimus, is filled with essays adapted from speeches at charter school events, including the “January 6 Insurrection Hoax.” Another essay called Russian President Vladmir Putin “the preeminent statesman of our time.” 

Arnn headed former President Donald Trump’s much-maligned “1776 Commission,” which he adapted into Hillsdale’s charter school curriculum. He wanted to counter the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” that addresses the impacts of systemic racism.

Hillsdale contends racism in this country ended with the 1960s civil rights movement. But pretending a major social problem doesn’t exist only ensures its propogation.

I’m not against all charter schools. I support a third one the SLIB will consider, Chugwater’s Prairie View Community School, which is not affiliated with Hillsdale. 

Officials of that school said students will work on multiple projects that benefit the community. They will work with and learn from local employers, and participate in internships on farms, ranches and other businesses.

Its curriculum is homegrown, not the product of another state’s Christian college that wants to churn out properly “patriotic” Stepford students. Prairie View is not out to break up the teachers’ union or close existing schools, and I see nothing wrong with it using public funds. 

The SLIB should wait until officials take office in January to decide the schools’ fate. Current members include Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, who will soon leave to become a judge, and Brian Schroeder, who headed a Cody private Christian school before Gov. Mark Gordon appointed him superintendent of public instruction.

Schroeder was defeated in the GOP primary. Was his very public support of charter schools a reason why voters rejected his candidacy? Shouldn’t we find out?

The Legislature responded to political pressure by handing the SLIB the task of deciding what’s in the best interests of students. Since none of the proposed schools would offer classes until fall 2023, there’s no need to rush the process.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. I enjoyed my education for the most part. But people don’t understand the most important part. Education only gives you basic tools. Learning is done AFTER. Reading independence and critical thinking are the keys. Don’t let the leftists shove their lies down your throat.

  2. “In a nation that has separation of church and state enshrined in its Constitution”… Where exactly, in the Constitution, does one find this?

  3. You need to investigate the founders of BLM. You need to pay more attention to current government-based “education” that we, the taxpayers, fund, but most certainly do not get our money’s worth.
    Your leftist bias is evident. But before you ask which “morals” will be taught, Christian-based morals are what founded this great nation. If you doubt that, read Adams, Jefferson, etc. Better yet, check out the 10 Commandments in the Bible. Our laws are based on those 10.

  4. How unfortunate it is that parents of modest means may have the option of giving their kids a more conservative education than what is currently available to them. What a shame that thousands of conservative taxpayers may see some of their tax dollars paying for education that is more aligned with their values. What is this world coming to?

    1. JFK was a wise man in (most) respects. All we have to do when we see religion creeping into our politics is look at those middle eastern countries where religious theocrats run the government. Turkey is a prime example, a country that used to be mostly secular, but is now a theocracy, and not for the better. That’s the direction that I see the right trying to take us in this country. The Supreme Court ruling on Roe is an excellent example of (not so) creeping theocracy.

  5. Excellent article with real meat. I spent my weekend reviewing a small portion of the curriculum and it literally is crap. So much truth just missing. Glossing over actual important events with suggested reading materials that are not the truth. It is horrific in that it leaves no room for analysis or discussion. It makes statements and instructions are to use only information provided and to have students memorize all the bullshit for regurgitation. Nope this is completely wrong. We will be leaving this state I am sure. My grandchildren will not receive a botched and theocratic education.

  6. Yah, these conservative schools and curriculum including homeschooling will probably do as well and maybe better than the public schools. I’m a former teacher who in the past was opposed to home schooling and charter schools. But even then our testing scores in our school, district and the state of Wyoming were not good, really not good and that was pre-COVID.

    So a question? Why is it okay for the Teton Science School to have a charter school but not to have a charter school with a more conservative view?

    Parents should have a choice. Some will chose to keep their children in the public schools and they will be content and happy with that choice because it works with their values. Other parents will chose to have their child attend a school that has curriculum that might be more conservative (I’m not as familiar with this curriculum) but if they feel it is more in alignment with their values that is their choice. Yes, it might be a school with a more conservative value system but they have as much right for their child to attend that school as a parent who sends their child to a less structured or less conservative school, even if that is a public school. Shouldn’t those parents have the right to have their child also exposed to and influenced by the curriculum and values they support as much as the parent who wants their child to got to a school that doesn’t. Some parents aren’t bothered by drag shows taking place in their schools other parents might not feel the same way and if so why should they be forced into having their child go to that educational facility and vise versa for the parent who isn’t as conservative. School throughout the USA are changing and not all of those changes are viewed the same by all parents. It is all about choice. I thought that was supposed to be a big thing in Wyoming and in the United States of America. My body my choice for abortion so that should apply to other concepts as well. My body my choice to get vaxed, my child my choice on my child’s education. It is their child and not the teacher’s child, or the school’s child. And if the parent has a child with special needs they should pick the educational environment that they feel would best meet that child’s needs but they should have that choice. Also having been a teacher in Wyoming public schools I absolutely know that not all school are equally proficient at providing educational needs to students with special needs or bilingual students needs.

    I will admit that I really don’t know much about charter schools. Does the Teton Science School have programs for students that have special needs? For some reason I am thinking that they have become a charter school. Do they have students attending regularly that can’t afford to pay the tuition? How does a child get into their school? I really don’t know but wouldn’t be nice if all children no matter what their economic background or situation could attend it. I know when I was teaching (been retired about 5 years) that our 5th grade students got to go to a special week experience at the Teton Science School. They could only attend if they were able to raise money to pay to go, or if the PTA could help them pay but they had to apply for something through some special program or if the child had wealthier parents who could afford the cost … and the cost was a lot. So, why is this charter school and service any more beneficial to all Wyoming students than charter schools with a more conservative curriculum? Why can’t parents no matter what side of the political spectrum they side with have the right to choose the the educational system they think will best fit the values they feel are best for their child and family? Most people get to ‘choose’ the university they want to go to or can afford shouldn’t it be the same at the lower educational levels? A matter of choice.

    1. Teton Science School is a private, non-profit school. They are not publicly funded. They are not a charter school. A 15-second google search discovered this.

  7. So maybe I am not understanding the article and the comments but … it is okay for our public schools to teach other less conservative concepts and for all of Wyoming people to pay for that education? Am I right?

    Oh, and it is okay for the Federal Government to pull funding for Title 9 money if a school doesn’t do what was signed into law by our president and decisions he made that were not even voted on at our national or state level legislatures let alone at the local state, community, district or school level? So that is okay … but curriculum that comes from a more conservative background is not okay … even if it is the curriculum the people at the more local state, county or community level might want. I’m a former teacher and I got upset when people talked about charter school or homeschooling when I was teaching. It took money away from public schools and I didn’t trust the quality of those places to educate students. I thought the public school would and could do it better. But … even when I was teaching each year our Wyoming and National students testing scores were going down in the basics reading, writing and math. Teachers didn’t have time to do everything in the day. We weren’t doing the best at educating our Wyoming students then, then COVID came and things haven’t improved and now we have the federal government is sticking its nose in at the state and local level to an even greater extent. Especially if it isn’t what the majority of people at that local level want.

    So, now I’m thinking why shouldn’t a parent have a choice. If they want their child educated in the public school system with whatever that curriculum contains including current curriculum being pushed by the federal government, teacher associations and other less conservative groups then that is their choice … BUT … If parents want their child to be educated at a school (or at home) that they think will better listen to them, better educate their child then they should have that right, also. If they don’t want federal rules they don’t agree with influencing their child they have as much right to that as to the parents who think the current school system is meeting the needs of their children.

    I’m for choice! My body my choice – A parent’s child their choice for where their child is educated! Yes, it is their child and they should have that choice for their child not the government or other groups. Yes, this will take away money from public schools. Maybe then these schools will listen more carefully to their customers, the parents and what they want at the local, community level.

    1. You’re retired teacher, and do not know that it’s vice versa, not vise versa? Much less how to formulate and articulate a coherent argument? The point of the public school system is to provide all students with the knowledge and skills to participate and thrive in a modern economy. It is not for political games elevating a particular mind set and beliefs of any group–left or right. Let’s get the basics across, before we start to squabble over right-wing vs left-wing vs Martian-wing beliefs. I’d like to know that the schools I fund can at least teach the minimum civic values, bias free, and work skills. My niece and nephew don’t even know the fundamentals of the US Constitution, after 12 years in Wyoming schools.

  8. I fully agree with Kerry. What Kerry might have shown more light on are:
    1) The Hillsdale President (Jim Arnn) is on record of being against credentialing of schools and teachers. In fact he said that anyone who gets a graduate degree in education is a fool. Adding to that, he has often stated “anyone can teach” (ie, teaching is not a profession). One may speculate what may be tied to this rhetoric, but it does follow the far-right’s attack on teachers’ unions… and belief that education is something some do as a hobby. Additionally there is the belief that starving “the beast” of public education will herald in sectarian education specific to White Christian Nationalism.
    2) The “1776 Project” curriculum is dangerous in its “glossing” over history of this country. Making matters worse is the fact that Wyoming’s Social Studies Standards are vacuous and one can drive a truck through them. Indeed, this state’s social studies standards are among the worst in the nation. Wyoming needs to review, reconsider and rewrite its standards. To permit Hillsdale to “set up shop” before the Social Studies Standards are “fixed” would be inviting trouble. Why? What Hillsdale has to offer will currently “fit” within this state’s standards, ultimately being the proverbial “camel’s nose under the flap of the state’s curriculum tent” thereby paving the way for other school districts to adapt that xenophobic and bigoted history. Finally, I find it really hypocritical, and yes, racist, for the state’s solons who have been attempting to legislate against any history which might be deemed “offensive” to some kids, but then are pivoting to bring in Hillsdale’s “White Wash.”
    3. Alas, whatever happened to local control and the ethics of avoiding conflict of interest? I hear from our members of congress, our legislators, our governor and others warning of “federal over-reach” in the state’s powers. Yet, there is not the same sense of shame when it comes to “state over-reach” into local community powers? For the past eight years I have witnessed the legislature insinuate itself deeper and deeper into the local control of schools regarding curriculum. Now it is taking away the local board’s ability to determine whether a charter school is needed in a given a community. Shameless hypocrites. But there is more: Jared Olsen and Charlie Scott are both guilty of conflict of interest in this enterprise (in this person’s mind that charter statute was crafted with the commitment for the Hillsdale already established … sheesh). Olsen is a co-sponsor of the statute and on the of the Hillsdale Academy here in Cheyenne. Why aren’t there demands for an explanation? And as for Scott, his antipathy and vitriol directed at public schools – and don’t be fooled by his whine that its about standardized test scores – is due to the Campbell and Washakie decisions which direct and demand state funding of public schools. Scott, like his buddies Eli Bebout and Odgen Driskill want to control school funding believing they are the ones who should make that decision and not the state’s constitution. In sum, for Charlie Scott this is about political brinksmanship (I still hear his calloused and cynical words when he was debating against Medicaid Expansion six years ago. I still clench my fists in rage as I recall Charlie equating Medicaid Expansion to slavery.).

  9. Well if they want to “weaponize ” their teachings then why not have students cary firearms into classrooms …in the 60, 70’s we were able to have firearms in school and clean and dress deer and elk in shop class .

  10. Will these so-called Christian schools take special needs children? Those students that need extra help to just get through the day? The students with behavior problems? Handicapped and wheelchair bound students? You want public tax dollars for your private schools, are you willing to follow state mandates for vaccinations and other rules to keep students healthy, mentally and physically?
    Many times privately funded schools want only the best and the brightest. Not the problematic and difficult students.

  11. The ” guns and God ” curriculum preached by Christian based charter schools – such as Supt. Brian Schroeder’s own Veritas Academy in Cody – attempt to replace the perceived but imaginary indoctrination taught by public schools with their own very real patriotic theocratic indoctrination. This cannot be allowed to happen.

    The separation of Church and State should be exemplified and codified rigidly when it comes to public education. Reminder: the Wyoming state Constitution mandates at the bedrock level that Wyoming provide the best possible public K-12 education it can afford. We cannot afford Christian-based alternative nonpublic schools. They need to be severed from state funding and state management altogether; cast off. I’m not sure what to tell you about Homeschoolers… the home schooled kids I’m acquainted with are for the most part stellar savvy student of great promise. But those marched through Christian schools? Not so much . Sorely lacking in worldly street smarts and a solid general education.

    This will be ugly, I fear. There is nothing more important than education . There is nothing more dangerous than indoctrination. Christianized Charter schools are short on the former and long on the latter

  12. Destroying public education has been a goal for many extremist politicians. They want to micromanage the curriculum for all students to mirror their personal beliefs. This simply can not be allowed. Children need to be educated with facts and encourage to use critical thinking skills. They should not be indoctrinated.

  13. Absolutely not a single penny should be peeled away from state educational funds to fund Hillsdale’s cloaked private school curriculum.

  14. Excellent editorial. Points made; however, my fear is the far, far right has captured the minds of good, solid Wyoming people, to the peril of all. Witness K. True’s letter to the editor in last Sunday’s Star Tribune attacking U.W.—- Problems ahead, I fear.