The Network for Public Education, a pro-public education advocacy group, today released a new report. “A Sharp Right Turn” looks at how “a new breed of charter schools delivers the conservative agenda.”
In her preface to the report, NPE president and education historian Diane Ravitch places the rise of conservative charters in the context of the current wave of culture wars.
Few doubt that the religious right has decided to stake its claim on the next generation of hearts and minds with its unrelenting push for vouchers and book and curricular bans. This report exposes the lesser-known third part of the strategy—the proliferation of right-wing charter schools.
The report focuses on two particular types of charter schools; the “classical” charters, and the charters touting “back to basics” curriculum. It notes that many conservative charters offer certain signals to help “attract families with Christian nationalist beliefs.” Those signs include “red, white, and blue school colors, patriotic logos, pictures of the founding fathers, using terms such as virtue, patriotism, and even outright references to religion.”
The researchers found 273 current examples of these charters melding classical virtuous curriculum with intense patriotism “for Christian nationalist appeal.” Underlining how new this trend is, the report points out that nearly half of these schools have opened since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Classical education is, by its very nature, not new. But the report finds that the new crop of classical charters frequently present themselves as free private Christian schools that reject progressive education ideas. Reading lists skew away from diversity; one reading list researchers found included Dickens, Tolkien, and not a single person of color.
The report considers several examples of the growing conservative charter school trend.
Hillsdale College has been one of the most influential organizations pushing these charters. The small conservative Christian college in Michigan has become a major player in Ron DeSantis’s Florida; as the report says, “Tug any thread of Florida’s present education policy, and you will find this small Michigan college at the other end.”
Hillsdale’s president Larry Arnn was tagged by Donald Trump to head his short-lived 1776 Commision, charged with creating nationalistic history curriculum (a version of which is now offered by Hillsdale). He has made the occasional misstep, as when Hillsdale’s charter move into Tennessee was stalled after Arnn was caught saying that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
Hillsdale works through its Barney Charter School initiative as well as providing its classical curriculum to member charters at no cost. In some cases, as with the Optima chain in Florida, the charter may be operated by a for-profit charter management firm (in the case of Optima, both the charter chains and the charter management organization are owned by the same person). The report found that among this new wave of conservative charter schools, the percentage of those operated by for-profit charter management companies is twice that in the charter sector as a whole.
Great Hearts is an Arizona-based chain that claims to be the “leading provider of classical education in the country” and promises “to cultivate the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”
Great Hearts has drawn criticism many times over the years. In 2018, the school issued a biological and gender nonconforming policy, requiring students to use facilities corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates. In 2020, the superintendent of Great Hearts’ Texas schools apologized after students in an eighth grade history class were asked to list positive aspects of slavery.
One example from Great Hearts captures the way these sorts of charters try to straddle the line:
Even as Great Hearts chases education savings account dollars with faith-based Christos schools, the network insists its public charter schools are non-sectarian. However, comments from former employees suggest otherwise. “Requires a Bible in the classroom at all times (but will not tell you this in any of your interviews, will tell you your first day after you’ve already signed a contract),” reads a review on the Glassdoor employment website.
Private schools, which can be openly religious, don’t face this issue; however, NPE argues, “Christian nationalist charter schools masquerade as public schools but operate like right-wing faith groups.” As charter schools, these schools are funded with taxpayer dollars, which presents yet another test to the schoolhouse wall between church and state.
That wall may soon face a more direct test. Oklahoma has authorized the first overtly religious charter school, which will certainly lead to a legal challenge, and some folks on the right may be more than happy to take the question all the way to the Supreme Court. Should conservatives win, Great Hearts and other such schools could be more open about their biblical classroom requirements, and have taxpayers buy the Bibles.
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