Commentary

Why is the UW System working with the controversial Hillsdale charter school network?

November 5, 2022 7:00 am
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Controversy surrounding Hillsdale charter schools led the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University in Wisconsin to threaten to sever ties last month with Lake Country Classical Academy — Wisconsin’s first Hillsdale-affiliated charter school. The tribe cited “inflammatory, derogatory, and racist comments captured by hidden camera” by the president of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn. Arnn’s comments, which made headlines after they were leaked from a private meeting he had with Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, also led to the collapse of a plan to launch several Hillsdale charter schools in that state.

In Wisconsin, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University and the conservative, Christian academy always seemed like strange bedfellows. I covered their partnership back in a December 2021 Examiner story exploring how the tribal college — which runs one other charter school emphasizing Ojibwe language and culture — came to authorize an academy whose curriculum centers the greatness of Western civilization and soft-pedals slavery and the genocide of Native American people.  

While it received 3% of the taxpayer funds that followed each student to the school under its contract, the tribal college took a laissez faire attitude toward the actual running of the school, which was located at the other end of the state and did not serve any Lac Courte Oreilles children.

But Arnn’s inflammatory comments, which the Examiner reported on Oct. 3, disrupted the easy-going relationship between the school and the tribal college, which issued its denunciation on Oct. 4. Despite the strong language in the tribal college’s statement, Arnn’s secretly recorded comments actually didn’t have much to do with race. Instead, they focused on teachers, whom Arnn said are “trained in the dumbest part of the dumbest colleges in the country.” But a flurry of reporting on Arnn and Hillsdale around the same time also cited the Hillsdale K-12 curriculum’s criticism of the civil rights movement and its emphasis on the history and traditions of American citizens as the inheritors of Western civilization,” as the Lake Country Classical Academy website puts it.

Hillsdale’s explicitly political project is no secret. Arnn was appointed by Trump to lead the 1776 Commission, created to promote a positive vision of America, in what Politico called “a direct challenge to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which explored how racism and inequality shaped the founding of the country.”

A recent Facebook ad hawking Betsy Ross flags as a fundraiser for Hillsdale College quotes the Declaration of Independence and states, “Throughout most of our nation’s history, Americans learned about and revered these ideas. Sadly, because of the Left’s hijacking of history education in so many of our schools, this is no longer true.”

If the Lac Courte Oreilles is ending its relationship with a Hillsdale charter school because of such provocative political statements, why is the UW System now considering becoming a Hillsdale charter authorizer in Wisconsin?

The UW System’s Office of Educational Opportunity is reviewing another proposed Hillsdale charter school, the North Shore Classical Academy. The school’s founder was part of a failed recall effort to unseat four school board members in Mequon-Thiensville, a high-achieving, mostly white district in the suburbs of Milwaukee, based in part on claims that the schools were teaching “critical race theory.”

On Oct. 17, at a community meeting to gather public input on the school, the director of the OEO, Vanessa Moran, said the academy has already passed the first phase of a five-phase process for approval by UW System. During the public meeting in Mequon, Jenni Hofschulte, a member of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, says she spoke with Moran, who praised the academy and also had positive things to say about Lake County Classical Academy. Acknowledging  that the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University is cutting ties with Lake Country, Moran told Hofshulte she had visited the school and that she felt it was doing great things. While UW System had not yet committed to authorize either Hillsdale school, according to Hofshulte, Moran said she was excited about the prospect that the two Hillsdale charter schools could form a “professional community.”

Moran did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment on the matter. But according to a UW System public information officer, Lake Country Classical Academy has not yet applied for authorization through the UW System.

For now, Wisconsin has one Hillsdale charter school whose authorizer has threatened to leave unless it meets a series of demands that include dropping its affiliation with Hillsdale and sending all of its staff and board members to Ojibwe/indigenous cultural sensitivity training — conditions it seems unlikely the school will meet.

And then there’s the North Shore Classical Academy, which, curiously, describes itself on its website as “the first in the state of Wisconsin to be a Hillsdale Curriculum School” (Lake Country Classical Academy’s website states that it is a “Hillsdale College Member School” and promotes its status as a “licensed user of the Hillsdale K-12 curriculum.”)

North Shore’s founder, Cheryl Rebholz, in addition to running in the recall election for the Mequon-Thiensville school district last fall, is a former school board member and the owner of a “boutique shooting range” in Mequon, according to a video produced by the right-wing Badger Institute. The video, titled “An Epidemic of Decline,” features Rebholz describing her disillusionment with the Mequon school district and her decision to launch the new charter school because of a breakdown in discipline and the way “politics” has invaded public school classrooms. “I don’t care what your politics are, they stop at the threshold. It is an epidemic of decline, and we need to restore it,” she says.

The video, which opens with a statement about independent charter schools and private voucher schools receiving “thousands less per student” than public schools, ends with Rebholz saying emphatically, “I want the same amount of money a public schooler gets in-district! That money should follow the child, period.”

This statement sums up the debate in Wisconsin and across the country about the privatization of public schools. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels promised during his campaign that he would create a universal school choice system in Wisconsin, removing all enrollment and income limits on vouchers.

One private school parent who attended the public meeting on the North Shore Classical Academy voiced opposition to the movement toward unlimited taxpayer funding for what is essentially a publicly funded system of private schools. “How many of these can we afford?” asked Mequon resident Beth Bauer. “Public school is for the public, not for every individual parent. … If you want private school, we have plenty of them around here.”

The UW System’s involvement in the expansion of charter schools like Hillsdale adds fuel to the fire that is consuming Wisconsin’s public education system.

The Office of Educational Opportunity was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2015, and its director is appointed by the UW System president. 

The whole point of the office is to give charter schools that don’t get a green light from local school boards another shot at setting up shop, drawing money out of local school districts without local citizen input.

“Circumventing local school boards diminishes local control, thwarts transparency and damages democracy,” says Hofshulte.

If the OEO decides to become a Hillsdale authorizer, it will also mean the UW System is making Wisconsin taxpayers pay to support the right-wing, anti-public-school movement.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.

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