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.”