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The Ascent Clas­sical Academy Flatirons, a pro­posed charter school in the Boulder, Col­orado area, was denied its charter appli­cation to open this fall. The school is part­nered with Hills­dale’s Barney Charter School Ini­tiative. Pexels

A pro­posed clas­sical charter school in Col­orado, part of Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Ini­tiative, has been denied a charter appli­cation by the Boulder Valley Board of Edu­cation, based on con­cerns regarding school gov­er­nance and reli­gious dis­crim­i­nation.

The Ascent Clas­sical Academy Flatirons, according to its website, is “a pro­posed K‑12 tuition-free charter public school,” and would be the next school to open as part of Ascent Clas­sical Acad­emies, a network of charter schools.

The ACA lead­ership first sub­mitted an appli­cation in August 2018 to open Flatirons this coming fall, said Derec Schuler, CEO of ACA, and 650 fam­ilies intended to enroll. But because the local school board denied the appli­cation, according to Schuler, ACA appealed the Col­orado State Board of Edu­cation, which then instructed the Boulder Valley school board to recon­sider the appli­cation.

After reviewing the appli­cation per the state board’s instruc­tions, the local school board denied the appli­cation again, Schuler said, rejecting ACA’s gov­er­nance model for the school and sug­gesting the school could have problems with dis­crim­i­nation.

“The super­in­tendent of the local school dis­trict ini­tially rec­om­mended our school,” Schuler said. “We felt pos­itive coming into the meeting where we were to be approved. But at that meeting, the super­in­tendent reversed his rec­om­men­dation. It was a sur­prise to all of our fam­ilies.”

The charter was denied in a 3 – 3 vote; in addition, Board Member Val Flores recused herself. In a statement on Boulder Valley School District’s website, the board expressed concern that the school’s gov­er­nance structure may not serve parents or let them have “suf­fi­cient influence.” The statement also said ACA lead­ership rejected Super­in­tendent Rob Anderson’s “pro­posed con­dition for a parent-elected board to govern” the new charter school.

“The school is managed by Ascent Clas­sical Acad­emies and the board meetings would likely be held in Golden, 30 miles from the dis­trict and the tax­payers who support the school,” the statement said. “It would also be ‘self-repli­cating,’ meaning that the board will select replace­ments for members who have com­pleted terms – a model that does not promote public account­ability.”

Eric Coyk­endall, asso­ciate director of the Barney Charter School Ini­tiative, said while the charter denial is unfor­tunate, ACA and BCSI have to pay attention to the reasons the board gave for rejecting the appli­cation, par­tic­u­larly regarding school gov­er­nance.

“Pol­itics may have affected the decision in a neg­ative way, but we also have to take seri­ously the reasons the dis­trict gave for its rejection.”

These political forces, according to Schuler, came in the form of the local chapter of the NAACP, the Boulder Valley Edu­cation Asso­ci­ation, and a local LGBTQ rights group. In a Jan. 19 opinion for the Daily Camera, Kristine Johnson and Louisa Matthias, co-chairs of Boulder’s NAACP chapter, claimed ACA’s asso­ci­ation with Hillsdale College, through BCSI, meant it was not a good fit for the com­munity because Hillsdale is a “reli­giously-ori­ented school with right-wing asso­ci­a­tions,” and reli­gious charter schools should not receive public funding.

BVSD’s statement on the sit­u­ation says ACA requested waivers from the school district’s non dis­crim­i­nation policies “without ade­quately explaining the need for the waiver or offering a sat­is­factory replacement.” The school board par­tic­u­larly noted a lack of “ref­er­ences to gender identity/expression or physical char­ac­ter­istics.”

Schuler main­tained that the fears about dis­crim­i­nation from the new charter school are unfounded.

“We had requested a waiver from the district’s nondis­crim­i­nation policy, and we were very clear about our rationale — our policy on dis­crim­i­nation pro­tects everyone’s rights,” he said. “It’s important we handle com­plaints our­selves, as a charter school.”

Coyk­endall said the accu­sa­tions against ACA and BCSI on the grounds of dis­crim­i­nation and pushing reli­gious or political views are “absurd, because none of that is legal.” The fact that BCSI has 20 schools throughout the country, he said, refutes the accu­sa­tions.

“Not only would we advise against it, but it almost doesn’t matter because you can’t do that,” he said. “If you were attempting to use a charter school to pros­e­lytize, you wouldn’t be able to get away with it for very long, and you espe­cially wouldn’t be able to get away with it if you had 20 schools in nine states. It’s lever­aging in sort of an absurd assumption to get people to believe there’s some­thing sub­stantial there.”

According to Coyk­endall, schools that provide serious edu­cation will have to teach about religion to some extent.

“Sure, edu­cation is political — it’s impos­sible to get away from that on some level. But we are pro­viding stu­dents with a good history edu­cation, par­tic­u­larly in the history of the West and the history of America and American gov­ernment, but not one that’s par­tisan,” he said. “As far as religion, you can’t teach Western history and lit­er­ature without teaching some religion. People like to trade on this ambi­guity: ‘Well, you’re teaching about religion; therefore, you’re teaching religion.’ That’s not the case at all. Any serious school is teaching about religion. It’s just a matter of the approach that’s taken.”

In a column pub­lished in the Daily Camera, Pres­ident Larry Arnn also spoke to the crit­i­cisms regarding religion which were put forward in a Feb. 2 edi­torial from the Daily Camera’s edi­torial board.

“The edi­torial pointed out ref­er­ences to the Christian faith in the Hillsdale College mission statement. It omits the par­allel ref­er­ences to ‘civil and reli­gious liberty,’ a founding com­mitment of the College since 1844,” Arnn wrote. “We under­stand that under this prin­ciple, public edu­cation must be strictly secular. Public edu­cation exists rather for the student to learn the skills and knowledge nec­essary for free cit­i­zenship. This includes espe­cially the right of reli­gious freedom.”

Schuler says ACA is con­sid­ering dif­ferent options moving forward in hopes of even­tually opening ACA Flatirons.

“We’re con­sid­ering addi­tional options given that the State Board of Edu­cation did not address the legal issues behind our appeal. They had a respon­si­bility to con­sider the legal aspects, which they didn’t do,” Schuler said. “The pres­ident of the state board of edu­cation also sug­gested that the school should work with the statewide charter office. We’re looking at all of our options, and we’re also con­sid­ering applying again next year. We’re still com­mitted to offering the best edu­cation.”