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