Andy Spears: Tennessee Is About to Take School Privatization to an Extreme
Andy Spears is a close observer of education activity in Tennessee. In a piece for Progressive, he lays out the breadth of the current attacks on public education under Governor Lee.
If you are wondering what it looks like when school privatizers are close to total victory, Tennessee is a prime example. Here, the forces that want to take public money and hand it over to private entities are on the verge of completing their conquest.
Tennessee’s current legislative session features a range of attacks on public schools. Some of these would have immediate impacts, while others take a longer-term approach to fully privatizing K-12 education in the state.
First, it is important to understand that groups backing privatization in the form of charter schools and vouchers are among the top spenders when it comes to lobbying state legislators. For example, the American Federation for Children—an organization founded and previously led by the family of Betsy DeVos, a school privatization advocate and former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education—spent $887,500. Another big spender, the Tennessee Charter School Center, spent $732,500.
Based on this year’s full-frontal assault, these investments appear to be paying off. There are three key issues that currently pose the most significant threat to Tennessee’s public schools. They include: a partnership with Hillsdale College, a private fundamentalist Christian college in Michigan, to run fifty or more charter schools; legislation that would create a charter school real estate grab; and school funding reforms that set the stage for a statewide voucher program.
In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee restated his commitment to set aside $32 million to help launch new charters in Tennessee and announced the Hillsdale College partnership, which could bring close to fifty Hillsdale-run charter schools into the state.
Beyond the use of public funds to open schools run by a private, Christian college, there is reason to be concerned about the nature of the Hillsdale curriculum. As educator and blogger Peter Greene explained, “[Hillsdale President Larry] Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. . . . The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh’s show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy.”
Of course, any charter schools—Hillsdale or otherwise—must be approved by a local school board, right? Wrong! Tennessee’s State Charter Commission, created by Lee, can override local decisions. And Lee is now seeking to expand the authority of this unelected body.