MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WTVF) — Should a controversial Michigan college be allowed to open a taxpayer-funded school in Rutherford County?
The public had a chance to weigh in on that debate Wednesday in Murfreesboro.
It's a question that has divided the state ever since a NewsChannel 5 investigation caught Hillsdale College's president on camera badmouthing public school teachers.
"What's happening today is pure politics," said Jason Martin, the Democratic nominee for Tennessee governor.
"It's about bringing Hillsdale to town whether communities want it or not, and we need to speak out against it."
Martin was part of a group of protesters outside a hearing conducted by staff of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission.
The Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy is asking the commission to overturn the decision by the Rutherford County school board to deny their application for taxpayer funding for their privately operated charter school.
"It's robbing local officials of control over their institution," Martin said. "It is focusing more on ideology, rather than the teaching our kids reading, writing and arithmetic."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the candidate, "If parents want this kind of choice, why should they not have it?"
"Look, this is not a decision about choice," he answered. "This is a decision about whether or not a school is providing the service that they claim to provide."
Rutherford County officials argue that the Hillsdale schools do not have a good track record when it comes to students with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged and the lowest performing children.
Joel Schellhammer — the CEO of American Classical Education Inc., the Hillsdale-affiliated group that would run the schools — was more combative.
"It is not the job of the Commission to be concerned about the words of politicians who are seeking office or trying to score political points by using kids as pawns in a chess game," Schellhammer said during the hearing.
In his remarks before commission staff, Schellhammer failed to acknowledge the one politician, Gov. Bill Lee, who is pushing the Hillsdale charter schools across Tennessee.
A board handpicked by the governor will decide whether to override the Rutherford County school board's rejection of Hillsdale's application.
And a former aide to Lee has now been hired to handle public relations for Hillsdale's effort.
While opponents made up most of the room, the few available speaking spots were snagged by charter school advocates who argued that Hillsdale's focus on "classical education" is different, that it "teaches students how to think, not what to think."
The advocates were parents who argued that traditional public schools do not meet the needs of their children.
"We have homeschooled. We have sent our kids to public school. We've even had one of our children go to a military boarding school," said parent Michael Dewey.
Parent Chris Littleton echoed those concerns, "Frankly, the audacity of a school district that is failing a majority of its students to deny an alternative to that failure is insulting to me as a parent."
All of this comes against the backdrop of controversial comments about teachers by the president of Hillsdale College at a reception with Gov. Bill Lee that "teachers come from the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges."
Rutherford County's coordinator of school choice/charter schools, Caitlin Bullard, said the district's review committee had already scored Hillsdale's application before those comments became public.
Still, she said, the school board certainly took them into consideration.
"The comments that were made were problematic in the operation of our district in terms of both our district's mission and our support as Rutherford County Schools for our teachers," Bullard said.
But the Hillsdale representative, Joel Schellhammer, blamed the controversy on the media.
"It is not the job of the commission to be concerned by media who see dollar signs and social media likes in trying to divide the community," he said.
There will be other public hearings for other Hillsdale schools, one Thursday in Jackson and the third Friday in Clarksville.
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