NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Details are limited in Gov. Bill Lee’s deal with Hillsdale College, Michigan’s controversial conservative-leaning school. The school has a network of charters, and the governor and some members of his cabinet contact them to bring dozens of new charter schools to Tennessee.
It was an announcement Lee made during his State of the State Address in February.
“We are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics in K-12 education in Tennessee,” he announced to enthusiastic applause among the supermajority GOP Legislature. .
He wants at least 50 new Hillsdale College-backed charters in the state.
With the governor’s new education spending plan, that could mean public funds would go 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, about their agreement, about the promises made,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) said.
There is growing pressure for more details about the governor’s dealings with Hillsdale — which predate his speech and announcements to redo Tennessee’s school funding formula.
“Parents, educators, and frankly everyone 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 2021, Tennessee taxpayers paid for Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s trip to Hillsdale to attend the school’s “2021 American Classical Education Summer Conference.”
When News 2 contacted the Department of Education to confirm travel details and asked if there was any material she had taken or received from the college, we were told to complete a public records request.
But travel records indicate taxpayers paid nearly $1,000 for Commissioner Schwinn to attend the conference.
So what was it about? The video archive of the meeting on the Hillsdale College website is for members only.
Detailed records from the Department of Education could take up to seven working days to return.
“The governor’s funding formula has nothing to do with charters or expanding charters – it takes the money that we currently appropriate and puts it into 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 on Governor Lee’s education spending plan and his desire for more charters to enter the voluntary state.
“We need the commissioner and the governor to start leveling people up — we need people to be clear about what the details are, what the relationship to Hillsdale is,” Yarbro said.
The governor’s office responds, saying in a lengthy email:
“We invited Hillsdale to undergo the application process with the goal of introducing another high-quality K-12 public education option for Tennessee students.”
News 2 has submitted a public records request for documents associated with the trip.