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Hillsdale Takes on Biden’s DOE

The Biden administration's new rule would give public schools a veto over charter school applications, but Hillsdale is not giving up.

You know you’re hitting the target when your opponent starts fighting back. In this case, the target is good education, namely charter schools, and the opponent is Biden’s Department of Education.

In the same week the New York Times was digging for any kind of dirt it could toss at Hillsdale College’s charter-school initiative, a new DOE rule went into effect. The rule, proposed in the unplumbed depths of the federal register a month prior on March 14, added some 14 pages of federal regulations on the traditionally local process of charter-school application, approval, and administration. Among other things, the rules would give school boards and “community leaders” a unilateral veto over new charter-school applications that don’t directly collaborate with the public schools.

Charter schools, which use a combination of public and private funding to provide parents and their children an alternative to public schooling without the additional costs of private or home education, have long been a thorn in the side of public schools and “educators.” This is in part due to the fact that children who attend charter schools have historically performed far better than their public school counterparts, prompting parents and voters to ask the obvious questions.

That difference in success is even more exaggerated at classical charter schools, particularly the 21 member schools of Hillsdale’s charter initiative, whose students begin by studying phonics in kindergarten and end having taken several years of Latin, classical literature, American history, moral philosophy, and Western civilization, among other subjects. So well-educated are the students, and so impressed are the parents, that Hillsdale claims to have over 8,000 students nationally on waiting lists to attend these schools, where admittance is typically determined through a lottery system. As it turns out, many parents would prefer their students to learn that America is a good county rather than that it is a racist one, or to read The Iliad rather than pornographic sex-ed “literature.” Naturally, the Times and the DOE are quaking in their heels.

The new rule states that charter schools were created to invite “innovative approaches to teaching and learning for all students while being held accountable for academic performance,” the twist of irony being that academic performance at charter schools typically far outstrips that of regular public schools. If anyone needs to be held accountable for academic performance, it is the Department of Education and public schools.

The rub, of course, is not simply that public schools are bleeding students to charter education, but that each of these charter schools is governed by a unique charter and a founding board; not, they note bitterly, school boards and teachers’ unions.

The original proponents of charter schools anticipated that charter schools would be shaped by educators and offer opportunities for developing and sharing new instructional methods and resources that address the needs of students and families in the community. While that is the case in some charter schools, in others, teachers, parents, and community leaders have expressed concerns about not being included as active participants in charter school decision-making.

…Similarly, some charter schools may not fully engage other community members and organizations that are also well-positioned to help assess the educational aspirations and needs of students living in their neighborhoods and can offer important contributions to help improve the academic, financial, and organizational and operational performance of the school.

To curb this, the rule sets new requirements for every would-be charter school: Applicants must propose a school that will be implemented with meaningful and ongoing engagement with current and former “educators,” including in “founding the school, board governance, school-level decision-making related to curriculum and instruction, and day-to-day operations of the school.” To demonstrate how it will meet this requirement, applicants must also provide the DOE with a plan accompanied by a timetable and milestones. That’s rule one.

The second rule builds on the first: To further prove community involvement, charter school applicants must propose a collaboration with one traditional public school with which they share one of the following: curriculum, resources, or course offerings; professional development opportunities for public-school teachers and leaders; evidence-based practices to improve academic performance for underserved students; policies to create a safe learning environment, including positive behavioral intervention; and one of a list of initiatives, including “transparent enrollment and retention practices,” a shared transportation plan, or another collaboration designed to address a significant barrier faced by public schools.

In other words, in addition to picking up students in weak school districts by their bootstraps, charter schools will now be expected to lift up the other public schools, their teachers, and administrators, too.

But there’s more. Applicant charter schools must also provide the DOE a letter from each partnering public school demonstrating the public school’s commitment to participate in the proposed collaboration. Absent that letter, the department may choose not to approve a charter-school application. In effect, the department has given public schools a veto over any new charter school they perceive as a threat.

Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost for K-12 education at Hillsdale College, heads up the college’s charter school initiative. According to O’Toole, this new rule is evidence that what was once a bipartisan issue has become, like so much else, very political.

“It sounds like the schools need to do a community-impact analysis, which means demonstrate that what the charter is providing is not going to hamper the operation of the traditional public school in the area,” O’Toole told The American Conservative.

She continued:

This is an old argument, the standard argument against charters. It sets up the public school as the default option, and then says ‘You can have a charter school if the public school is not doing it already.’ That’s against the idea of charters. What we need is not boutique education options. We need to be having a deep discussion about the content of education, the methods that teachers should be using, and then we need to present parents with those options, rather than loading the dice in favor of public schooling.

The new rules will have the effect of further centralizing public education, which O’Toole said is the problem charter schools were set up to resolve in the first place.

“These schools have to be operating in close concert and presumably agreement with the public schools themselves, and that means that they will be similar to the public schools themselves,” she explained. “We think that will limit the ability of new schools to get started, or if they do get started, to provide a true alternative.”

The DOE governs charter schools through CSP grants, which are the first infusion of funding a new charter receives in order to buy desks, books, and any supplies needed to start teaching. O’Toole said she is concerned that new charter access to CSP grants will be limited by the new rule, but Hillsdale is still charging “full steam ahead.”


In its April article describing Hillsdale’s charter school initiative, the Times implicated the small, private liberal arts college—my alma mater—for fighting “leftist academics” by expanding into charter schools. Spurred by the news that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has requested Hillsdale support 50 new charter schools in the state, reporter Stephanie Saul visited one of Hillsdale’s most successful charter schools, Atlanta Classical Academy. Among other details described with foreboding were the fact that Hillsdale dares to teach the idea that America is a good country, and that neither the college nor the charter schools it partners with count the number of minority students it educates to employ any form of affirmative action. Hillsdale can do this because it is entirely privately funded, and the support it offers to charter schools across the country is free of charge.

“I think when when people learn that Hillsdale College is involved in charter schools, they expect it to be, or I guess hope that it is, a kind of political project,” O’Toole said of the Times‘ coverage.

Yet despite the Times‘ insinuations, and the new rule from the DOE, Hillsdale’s charter schools are neither a political project nor can they be founded apart from serious community involvement, from the ground up. Parents and community members have to form the founding board, apply for the charter, and govern the school; Hillsdale simply provides the resources and curriculum to aid in that effort.

“We never plant schools,” O’Toole said. “The only reason why a school would work with Hillsdale is that a group of parents or community members have found out about Hillsdale classical schools and said ‘We want to start one of these.’ The whole thing begins with parents and community involvement, and cannot succeed without the time and talent of people in the community, who either send their kids to the school or are happy that it exists in their area.”

Meanwhile, the Times‘ only quote from a parent was one of praise: “Martina Svoboda, whose two children attend the school, said she applied eight years ago spurred by overcrowded schools in Atlanta and problems communicating with her son’s teacher. ‘We were frustrated through the year,’ she said. Atlanta Classical has ‘smaller classrooms, friendly teachers and direct communication.'”



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