NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Details are limited in Gov. Bill Lee’s deal with Hillsdale College, the controversial conservative-leaning school in Michigan. The school has a network of charters and the governor and some in his cabinet are reaching out to them to bring dozens of new charter schools to Tennessee.
It was an announcement Lee made at his State of the State address in February.
“We are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics education in K-12 education in Tennessee,” he announced with rousing applause among the GOP supermajority legislature.
He wants at least 50 new Hillsdale College supported charters in the state.
With the governor’s new education spending plan, that could mean public dollars going to Hillsdale, a private Christian school in Michigan with close ties to former President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The administration needs to release a lot more information about their interaction with Hillsdale what their agreement is, what promises have been made,” said Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville).
There’s a growing push to get more details on the governor’s dealings with Hillsdale — which predate his address and announcements to remake Tennessee’s school funding formula.
“Parents, educators, and frankly anybody who pays taxes in Tennessee, needs to start really paying attention to what’s going on,” Yarbro added.
According to the Transparent Tennessee website, in June of 2021, Tennessee taxpayers paid for Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s trip to Hillsdale to attend the school’s ‘American Classical Education 2021 Summer Conference”.
When WKRN reached out to the Department of Education to confirm details about the trip and asked if there were any materials she took or received from the college, we were told to fill out a public records request.
But travel records indicate taxpayers paid out nearly $1,000 for Commissioner Schwinn to attend the conference.
So, what was discussed? Video archive of the meeting on Hillsdale College’s website is reserved for members only.
Detailed records from the Education Department could take up to seven business days to be returned.
“The funding formula for the governor has nothing to do with charters or expansion of charters — it does take the money we currently appropriate and put it in the formula and I think that makes sense,” said Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).
While facing backlash, Republicans are trying to set the record straight about Governor Lee’s education spending plan and his want for more charters to come into the Volunteer State.
“We need the commissioner and the governor to start leveling with people — we need people to come clean on what the details are, what the relationship with Hillsdale,” Yarbro said.
The governor’s office is responding, saying in a lengthy email:
“We have invited Hillsdale to undergo the application process in an effort to introduce another high-quality k-12 public education option for Tennessee students.“
WKRN submitted a public records request for those documents associated with the travel.