Former Education Secretary and Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, want to advance God’s “kingdom” with taxpayers footing the bill. School choice is the banner under which the DeVoses and their Christian nationalist allies fight to turn back the clock on American culture by undermining “government schools.” Their preference is to spread religious school vouchers, but the expansion of charter schools designed to appeal to Christian nationalist families serves their plan too.
For years, the charter school movement was associated with neoliberal reforms based on the belief that school competition in urban environments would be the tide that lifted all boats. But that thinking shifted as school choice became a Republican priority. There is even an ongoing effort, applauded by DeVos’s American Federation for Children, to open the first religious charter school in Oklahoma–which was approved by the Virtual Charter Board this week.
The Network for Public Education’s (NPE) new report, A Sharp Turn Right: A New Breed of Charter Schools Delivers the Conservative Agenda, exposes this expanding sector of the charter school industry. With the assistance of journalist Karen Francisco, NPE chronicled not only the growth of right-wing charter schools, but their ties to conservative politicians and the religious right. While the arch-conservative Christian Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School initiative has received the most attention, there are now hundreds of so-called “classical academies” and other charter schools whose websites are designed to attract conservative white families.
Quietly, but at an accelerating pace, right-wing and Christian nationalist charter schools are popping up predominantly in white rural and suburban conservative communities. Forty-seven percent of right-wing charters opened after Donald Trump came into office in 2017. And there are at least sixty-six schools in the pipeline to open in 2023 and 2024.
We found that students at these schools are whiter and wealthier than students who attend public and traditional charter schools. And we also uncovered the extensive role that right-wing politicians often play in the opening and governance of right-wing charters as well as the blatant incorporation of religious and quasi-religious imagery in what are supposed to be public schools.
Glenn Way, a former Utah Republican lawmaker, founded American Leadership Academy (ALA) in Spanish Fork, Utah. YouTube music videos posted by its choirs have clear religious themes. A quote in the caption from the writer of the song featured in one video, filmed primarily in a church sanctuary, reads: “We want to help kids and adults turn to Jesus, or become Jesus people.”
After leaving Utah and his charter school, Way went on to build a family fortune in Arizona by creating related businesses to profit from his American Leadership Academy empire of twenty-seven current and soon-to-open schools.
Although its curriculum is not “classical,” ALA typifies the new right-wing charter schools. Thirty percent of the right-wing charters we identified were run by for-profits — nearly twice the rate of traditional charter schools. They are often connected with Republican politicians crossing the secular line with clear signals to attract Christian nationalist families.
Representative Byron Donalds, Republican of Florida, is known for challenging Kevin McCarthy for House speakership. He and his wife are also classical charter entrepreneurs. Donalds is a former founding board member of Mason Classical Academy. His wife, Erika Donalds, owns OptimaEd, a for-profit company that sells everything from management services to classical virtual reality curriculum to charter schools. Optima Ed even sells its own brand of headsets for children to experience their VR curriculum.
Jay Heiler, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, was one of the founders of the Great Hearts Academies. Tucker Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, is a board member. The chain is now also opening Christian private schools.
And Cincinnati Classical Academy, a Hillsdale-affiliated school, goes to great lengths to hide its charter status, branding itself as a “tuition-free” school. The images on its website show that the building has a cross on top, and a poster in its hallway illustrates the virtue of humility with an image of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat.
Despite what, in some cases, may be violations of federal charter funding regulations, seed money for more than half of right-wing charters came from the federal Charter School Programs. In fact, Responsive Ed Solutions, which flips Christian schools to charters and whose creationist curriculum was exposed in 2014, received a total of $55,750,201 in federal grants in 2019 and 2020 to expand when Betsy DeVos ran the Department of Education.
As our report chronicles, charter schools have taken a sharp turn to the right and now serve a purpose never imagined by their early proponents. The only question that remains is whether progressives and neoliberals recognize where the runaway charter movement is headed before it’s too late.
This article was originally published in The Progressive and reprinted here with permission.