Exclusive: Hillsdale College's Charter School Initiative and the Reformation of Classical Public Education

Exclusive: Hillsdale College's Charter School Initiative and the Reformation of Classical Public Education

Hillsdale College is a longstanding institution whose mission is to provide an education steeped in a strong foundation of the classical arts and sciences, combined with an emphasis on each student’s uniqueness and the development of “critical, well-disciplined minds.”

Having implemented this mission at the collegiate level, Hillsdale College has now been reaching out to parents and school founding groups, seeking to reform K-12 public education.

As its website indicates, the Barney Charter School Initiative of Hillsdale College promises that the charter schools it helps launch “will train the minds and improve the hearts of young people through a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.”

In an interview with Breitbart News, Phillip Kilgore, the director of the Barney Charter School Initiative, reflected Hillsdale’s independent character when he said of last week’s election, “The 2014 mid-term election results demonstrate an implicit resistance by the voters to central planning from Washington, D.C. This is nowhere more significant than in educational issues.”

Kilgore understands that while many parents are clear they do not want the Common Core standards, some of the same parents are wary of charter schools.

“A good number of the charter schools are launching headlong into the world of Common Core,” Kilgore told Breitbart News. “When the David Colemans of the world say, ‘Common Core is just standards, not curriculum,’ we can’t forget about the tests, and teachers will teach to those tests.”

“But, ultimately, market forces will work there,” he said, noting that charter schools that use the Common Core will likely fail.

Kilgore said Common Core is the latest iteration of a U.S. education system that has been deteriorating conspicuously over the last half century.

“Whole language instead of phonics, ‘new math,’ history modified, the end of classical literature – all the philosophical changes,” he recounted.

He noted that while Hillsdale’s charter schools may be subject to a given state’s adopted standardized test, the schools’ mission to provide a classical education means that “well-educated students will always be able to do well on state tests.”

Hillsdale charter schools, Kilgore said, teach students what they might encounter on the tests, but don’t abandon their regular curriculum.

“A lot of charter schools have bought Common Core-aligned textbooks. Many of the charters are carbon copies of the public schools they say they despise,” he explained. “We do things differently. We don’t buy Common Core textbooks. We help school founding groups design curricula for the schools.”

Hillsdale, Kilgore said, helps groups around the country that want to start classical charter schools by serving as an adviser and an architect of the academic program. Those groups that apply for a charter and are seeking an association with Hillsdale gain the benefit of the experience of the college’s faculty members who have led classical schools, as well as its education department.

“Besides curriculum design, we provide teacher instruction and help prepare charter applications,” Kilgore added. “But we don’t play a governance or financing role. Our services are pro-bono.”

Kilgore challenges the assertion that Hillsdale’s charter schools are another attempt to privatize public education.

“Actually, this is the only viable way a public school can do the right thing,” he said. “We don’t want to see all of education go private; some people can’t afford private school.”

Kilgore explained that charter schools do not get the full public tax dollars for funding that regular public schools receive, but they can obtain philanthropic assistance.

“In a general average across the states, charter schools get between two-thirds and three-fourths of the funding that a regular public school receives,” he said. “Both kinds of schools get the per-pupil revenue from the state, but charters usually don’t get the proceeds from the local property taxes, whereas the regular public schools do get them.”

Kilgore provides the following example:

Per-pupil revenue might be about $7,000, but the regular public school would get another amount equating to $3,000 per pupil from property taxes that the charter school won’t get. So the total per child is $7,000 versus $10,000. These are the state funding sources. Federal funds supplement that state funding, such that roughly 10 percent of the state K-12 funding has federal origins. 

Dissenting from the progressive notion that taxpayer funding “belongs to” public schools, Kilgore asserted, “Money should follow the child. If you’re not educating the child, you shouldn’t get the money.”

Kilgore noted that over the last three years, Hillsdale has helped eight groups obtain charters around the country, including four that opened in August: Atlanta Classical Academy in Atlanta, Georgia; Mason Classical Academy in Naples, Florida; Founders Classical Academy-Leander, in Leander (Austin), Texas; and Founders Academy of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“By 2022, we hope to have 50 charters,” Kilgore said.

Dr. Terrence Moore, principal of Hillsdale’s Atlanta Classical Academy, which opened this year, is a former Hillsdale College professor of history and author of the book The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case against the Common Core.

Moore echoes Kilgore’s assertion that Hillsdale’s charter school model is a viable one to reform public education in the United States.

“The vast majority of students in this country will always attend a public school,” Moore told Breitbart News. “This nation, since the time of the Puritans, has always believed in public education.”

Moore described his charter school, which is fully enrolled with 486 students and 1,200 more on the waiting list:

Currently, I am running a school that is in its first year. Its curriculum and teaching practices are as traditional as any you will find. Our students revel in reading the classics. Our children recite poetry, discuss great works of literature, learn to do complex calculations in their heads, and take Latin starting in the sixth grade. Our school motto, that the students say every morning is, “I will love the true; I will do the good; I will love the beautiful.”

Moore, who serves as a senior adviser to the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative, observes what he calls the “public education behemoth.”

“We are all taxpayers,” he said. “Therefore, we are all contributing to a system that systematically and intentionally compromises genuine learning and often undermines the moral and political foundation of this country, as understood by the Founding Fathers and passed on for generations.” 

Moore insists that the “fight for education must be that of taking back the public schools.”

“The charter school option is the best we have at the moment,” he said, explaining that the school choice voucher system for private schools is often “politically untenable,” and that private schools are often dismissed as “selecting only the best students.”

“Further, there is the question of simple justice,” Moore reasoned. “Should the taxpaying parent pay for education twice: once for a bloated system that undermines genuine education and again for an expensive alternative?”

Both Kilgore and Moore agree that many charter schools are progressive in philosophy and many end up failing.

“The authorizers have to be responsible in policing the charters,” Kilgore said. “If they’re not responsible, it’s a complete betrayal of the public trust.”

“But there are great charter schools that are thriving right now and which prove that a public education can be great and that parents are quite capable of reviving an important civic institution: the public school,” Moore said. “Frankly, this is an opportunity for public-spirited people who want to follow in the moral, political, and educational tradition of the Founding Fathers to prove themselves.” 

Kilgore observed that even if 20 percent of charters fail, 80 percent are successful.

“That’s still pretty good,” he said, “considering that public schools are nearly 100 percent failures, when students in general are doing poorly and the cost for public schools just continues to increase.”


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