NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesRevealed


REVEALED: Debate continues over Hillsdale charter schools. Among questions: who will run them?

Posted: 6:17 PM, Sep 16, 2022
Updated: 2022-09-23 12:05:35-04
Phil Williams and Joel Schellhammer.jpeg

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It was a hidden-camera moment that continues to shape the debate over education in Tennessee.

"Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country," said Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn, the same man that Gov. Bill Lee has asked to set up dozens of privately operated charter schools across the state.

In Clarksville, a state commission held the third of three public hearings Friday from a Hillsdale-affiliated group, asking the state Public Charter School Commission to give it permission to open up shop here.

Among a handful of supporters for the American Classical Academy were homeschool families and others who feel public education has lost its way.

Boy with Classical Education sign.jpg
Homeschool student Sawyer Zientek holds sign supporting American Classical Academy

"Why do I not trust the district?" asked mother Becky Zientek. "I don't trust the district because they've proven to me that their intent is not to be truthful."

Zientek said she doesn't want her children using school-district laptops because someone might be spying on them.

The commission is considering an appeal from the Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy to open a taxpayer-funded school in Montgomery County, overturning the decision of the local school board.

"My school and this district were unable to meet my education needs, which forced my parents to now homeschool me," Zientek's son, Sawyer, told commission staff.

Another homeschooling mother echoed the support for the charter school.

"With no public school alternative, we decided to take the giant leap into classical education at home," Mary Cunningham said.

"We saw results immediately."

Local pastor Rocky Sickel described Hillsdale's approach as an answer to prayers.

"I am not a proponent of Christian schools or private schools, but I am a proponent of public schools where all students can attend, learn and function free from the extreme indoctrination of a nation that no longer stands for anything," Sickel added.

Critics said the Hillsdale approach is right-wing "indoctrination," and they pointed to Arnn's comments about teachers.

"Why should we as a community allow Hillsdale a foothold here when their leader thinks so little of Tennessee teachers?" asked Monica Meeks.

Ronnie Glynn added, "If a neighbor came into your house and called your family dumb, would you allow them to come back?"

To show Hillsdale's readiness, the man put in charge of planting charter schools in Tennessee introduced Phil Schwank as the person who would be principal there.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates tried to talk to Joel Schellhammer, who was personally picked by Larry Arnn to head American Classical Education Inc., the group that would operate the Hillsdale schools in Tennessee.

We approached Schellhammer, "Joel, I have a few questions for you."

Phil Williams and Joel Schellhammer.jpeg
Phil Williams with Joel Schellhammer, American Classical Education CEO

"Sorry," he answered, "I've got to run to the restroom."

We continued, "You've introduced Mr. Schwank in three different places as being the principal. How is that going to work?"

"I think we clarified today that he's the principal for here. He's a principal of ACE," Schellhammer said.

Schwank had been introduced in Rutherford County as "our principal."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Schellhammer, "Didn't you introduce him in Rutherford County, as well?"

"As a principal of ACE, yes," the CEO answered.

Schwank told NewsChannel 5, "I was introduced as a principal of ACE."

"So is that being honest with the commission?" we asked.

"Absolutely, because I am a principal of ACE."

We continued, "But you would not be the principal in Rutherford County or Madison County?"

"Well, it could be," Schwank said. "But I mean, we obviously don't know what the decisions of the commission are."

And that goes to the heart of one of the criticisms of the proposed Hillsdale schools, that -- under pressure from Gov. Lee to quickly score political points -- there's a lot we don't know about these proposed charter schools, including who would actually run them.

The final decision on the three proposed Hillsdale schools will come on October 5th, when the state public charter school commission will vote on whether to override the decisions of the three local school boards.


Do you have information for our investigation? Email us: