Answer Sheet: New Breed of Charter School Pushes Limits on Separation of Church, State
The religious right scored a win this week when Oklahoma’s virtual charter school board approved the opening of the nation’s first religious charter school, which, if it is actually allowed to open as planned in 2024 for grades K-12, will weave Catholic doctrine into every single subject that students take. Given that charter schools are publicly funded, and public schools aren’t supposed to provide religious education (although they can teach about religion), you may wonder how this school could be given permission to exist.
The decision is no surprise to people watching the way some charter schools run by right-wing organizations have been operating in recent years, pushing the boundaries of the separation of church and state embedded in the U.S. Constitution even as Supreme Court decisions have chipped away at it. Details can be found in a new report entitled “A Sharp Turn Right: A New Breed of Charter Schools Delivers the Conservative Agenda.” (See full report below.) It was written by the nonprofit Network for Public Education, a group that advocates for traditional public school districts and opposes charter schools, and has written reports in recent years chronicling waste and abuse of public funding of charter schools.
The network’s newest report looks at charter schools that it says are designed to attract Christian nationalists with specific imagery and curriculum. The student bodies of these schools are largely Whiter and wealthier than in other schools — in the charter sector and in traditional public districts — and have deep connections to people within conservative Christian movements, the report says.
Former U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos, a leader in the movement to expand charter schools and school vouchers — which use public funds for private and religious school education — has acknowledged that her work in the education sphere is driven by desire to advance school choice as a path to “advance God’s kingdom.” Her husband, Amway heir Richard DeVos, who worked with her for decades in the school choice movement, said he was sorry that public schools “displaced” churches as the center of communities.
The charter school movement moved into new territory Monday when the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved, on a 3-2 vote, an application for the opening of a virtual school to be named St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School and run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. The vote will be challenged in court, and as attorney and education policy scholar Kevin Welner wrote on this blog last year, we can expect to see litigation around whether church-run charters can “successfully assert their Free Exercise rights in an attempt to run the school without restrictions on proselytizing and religiously motivated discrimination.” You can read here about how the Supreme Court has been laying the groundwork for religious charter schools.
The new report by the Network for Public Education focuses on two types of charter schools: classical charters — which use the word “classical” in their names — and those offering “back to basics” curriculum. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and co-founder of the Network for Public Education, said in an introduction to the report that these charter schools are “the lesser-known third part” of a strategy by right-wing Christians to undermine secular public education; the others are vouchers and similar programs that use public funding for private and religious education, and book/curricular bans.
While private classical schools have a long history — emphasizing Eurocentric texts and the study of Latin and Greek — what is new is “the use of taxpayer dollars to fund them when they become or are established as charter schools,” the report said. Founders of classical charters generally reject modern instructional practices and accuse Progressive Era educational leaders such as John Dewey for removing Christian ideals from curriculum.
The Network for Public Education’s report notes that in classical private Christian schools, the curriculum focuses not only on the Western canon — Homer, C.S. Lewis and beyond — but also on scripture. “Classical charter schools emphasize ‘values’ or ‘virtues,’ which stand as shorthand for quoted scripture,” it says, which is especially true of classical charters that have opened since Donald Trump became president in 2017. “From videos posted on websites to crosses shown on the top of the school, we found example after example of charter schools presenting themselves as free private Christian schools,” the report says. It cited Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, Colo., which celebrates “capstones” representing the “highest order of virtue and character,” including “prudence, temperance, and patriotism,” and the American Classical Charter Academy in St. Cloud, Fla., which promotes eight “pillars of character” and four “classical virtues.”
“Back to basic” schools use red, white, and blue school colors, patriotic logos and pictures of the Founding Fathers, along with terms such as virtue, patriotism and sometimes outright references to religion, the report says, citing as an example the website of the four-campus Advantage Academy in Texas, which boasts of educating students in a “faith-friendly environment.” The Cincinnati Classical Academy, another charter school, does not advertise its charter status on its website, while offering a free education with instruction in “moral character.” The American Leadership Academy in Utah posts videos its choir singing religious songs; one includes the note, “We want to help kids and adults turn to Jesus, or become Jesus people.”
The fastest-growing sector of right-wing charters combines both a classical “virtuous” curriculum with “hyper-patriotism,” exemplified by charter schools that adopt the Hillsdale 1776 curriculum, which is centered on Western civilization and designed to help “students acquire a mature love for America,” its organizers say. The curriculum comes from Hillsdale College in Michigan, whose longtime president, Larry Arnn, is an ally of Trump’s and is aligned with DeVos. A Hillsdale K-12 civics and U.S. history curriculum released in 2021 extols conservative values, attacks liberal ones and distorts civil rights history, saying, for example: “The civil rights movement was almost immediately turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders.”
The Network for Public Education said that it had identified 273 open charter schools that offer a classical curriculum and/or have websites designed to attract White conservative families with for-profit management corporations running 29 percent of them, a percentage nearly twice as high as the entire charter school sector.
The new report looks at Roger Bacon Academy charter schools, run by Baker A. Mitchell Jr., which prohibit girls from wearing pants or jeans to school in order, according to a lawsuit, to ensure they are regarded as “fragile vessels” that men are supposed to take care of and honor, based on a quote from the Bible’s New Testament. (A ruling in a lawsuit challenging the dress code is on appeal to the Supreme Court after a federal judge ruled in favor of Bonnie Peltier, who objected to the unequal treatment of her daughter.) Students are also required to recite a daily oath committing them to be “morally straight” and guard “against the stains of falsehood from the fascination with experts,” while also avoiding the “temptation of vanity” and “overreliance on rational argument.”
“A Sharp Turn Right” also says one purpose of these schools is “to raise the next generation of right-wing warriors” to fight culture wars. Kyle Shideler, a senior analyst at the Center for Security Policy, an anti-Muslim organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in a recent article in the Federalist that donors should fund boot camps to train right-wingers in “the political dark arts” of organizing. In the article, he praises Hillsdale College for “the growing Christian classical school movement … for the purpose of forming young minds.”
Shideler is referring to Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which stems from the Barney Family Foundation, established by Stephen Barney and his wife, Lynne, in 1998. The report says it identified 59 charter schools that are open or will soon open that claim affiliation to the initiative. While Hillsdale College’s mission is to maintain “by precept and example the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith,” the mission of their K-12 charter schools includes a call for “moral virtue.”
The foundation’s 990s tax forms show that in addition to its health and child-centered charities, it funds right-wing think tanks, foundations and organizations that create conservative legislation on various issued used as models by Republican-led states. One recipient has been Hillsdale College, where Stephen Barney is a trustee emeritus on the Board of Trustees. Between 2010 and 2019, the Network for Public Education identified more than $4 million earmarked for the college from his foundation. In 2010, the Barney Charter School Initiative began with a half-million-dollar contribution from the foundation, and contributions in that range have been recorded every year for which records are available, the report says.
“A Sharp Turn Right” discusses examples of Republican officeholders and party chairs who, like Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), aggressively push the conservative charter school agenda. Republican Heidi Ganahl, who lost to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) in the 2022 gubernatorial election, is a founder of the Golden View Classical Academy. She also advocates for one of the fastest-growing Hillsdale-affiliated charter chains, Ascent Classical Academies, which operates two schools in Colorado, with plans to open four more in South Carolina, three in Colorado and at least one in North Carolina.
Here’s the report:
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