As the conservative District 51 School Board majority headed by Board President Andrea Haitz hurries to shut down East Middle School, it is fast-tracking the opening of yet another charter school, the Ascent Classical Academy, a project of Hillsdale College, a private Christian religious school located in south-central Michigan.
Ascent Classical Academy uses a curriculum advanced by Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative, “an outreach program of Hillsdale College devoted to the revitalization of public education through the launch and support of classical K-12 charter schools.”
Ascent Classical Academy plans to open in Grand Junction in August, 2023, at 545 31 Road, the building that formerly housed the Rocky Mountain Gun Club, just as the District puts the finishing touches on shutting down East Middle School, a high-performing traditional public school in the heart of downtown Grand Junction.
Ascent Classical Academy does not require its teachers to be licensed.
Charter schools typically receive the same per-pupil government funding that traditional public schools receive, and so get accused of siphoning these funds away from traditional public schools. The National Education Association explains that “When students move to charter schools, ‘the funding follows the child.’ However, the cost of operating the child’s former school is virtually unchanged.” Thus, as children leave traditional public schools, those schools are forced to cut programs like sports, art and music. Or, as in the case of East Middle School, they get forced to shut down entirely.
The D-51 school board gave the go-ahead to Ascent in May of 2022, using a process that allows charter schools to work directly with the state, so it could bypass local control. School Board President Haitz introduced a resolution allowing Ascent to be fast-tracked, thus letting it bypass time-consuming local school board decisions.
Broomfield and Durango both rejected Ascent Classical Academies
Hillsdale is a decidedly right wing institution politically. In 2021, for example, it released a “1776 Curriculum” as a direct counter to the New York Times’ 1619 Project about the history of slavery in the U.S., and its corresponding K-12 curriculum. The Washington Post wrote in July, 2022, that “Hillsdale spreads the gospel of the right-wing through their K-12 curriculum and the Barney Charter School Initiative, which currently claims member schools in nine states across the country and ‘curriculum schools’ in 19 states. The college’s mission to maintain ‘by precept and example the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith’
morphs into a call for ‘moral virtue’ in their K-12 charter schools.”
Salon Magazine wrote that Hillsdale is a “tiny Christian college” that is leading the charge in “driving the right’s nationwide war against public schools” and carrying out a “full-scale conservative assault” on public education.
Ascent Classical Academy attempted to open charter schools in Broomfield and Durango, but both those local school boards denied the applications based in part on the grounds that they are actually “religious” schools seeking government funding. In a 2/11/19 editorial titled “Boards were right to reject Ascent charter school,” the Broomfield Enterprise wrote,
“Ascent’s provenance actually goes way beyond Golden — all the way to Hillsdale College, in Michigan, and the college’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which promotes the founding of classical charter schools like Ascent. Hillsdale’s stated mission is, in part, to maintain “the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.” (The name Ascent is an apparent allusion to Jesus’ ascension.) The college’s president, Larry Arnn, endorsed then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Vice President Mike Pence and the far-right Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have given recent Hillsdale commencement addresses. Its alumni have jobs throughout the Trump administration. The school refuses public money and therefore avoids Title IX guidelines on sex discrimination and sexual assault protocols, the New York Times reported. “It has refused to engage in the otherwise required reporting on student race and ethnicity, let alone develop an affirmative action plan,” the Times reported. “Openly gay or lesbian students are a rarity, and The Princeton Review consistently ranks Hillsdale among the 20 least LGBTQ-friendly campuses.”
Durango’s School District Board formally rejected an Ascent Classical Academy on June 14, 2022, after finding it was not in the best interests of students, the community or the District. The Durango Board also noted the school’s connection to the religious Hillsdale College, writing in part,
“Hillsdale is an overtly religious institution, which describes itself as a “Christian, classical liberal arts college”; it proclaims on the first page of its website that, “[l]earning, character, faith, and freedom . . . are the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College.”
Durango’s School Board noted numerous other problems with Ascent’s application as well:
“Among other things, Ascent presented a replication charter school that is not tailored to the unique needs or population of the District. It would be governed by a board based in Golden, Colorado, and would be operated by a manager contractually affiliated with Hillsdale College and its Barney Charter School Initiative. Ascent’s application also did not provide evidence that all students would have equal educational opportunity, regardless of disability, native language, income, color, or gender diversity. In addition, no facility plan was provided, and questions about the school’s financial plan were left unanswered. During the review period, Ascent was asked to explain why it requested waivers from dozens of District policies, and rather than provide the information, it withdrew the waiver requests, leaving numerous potential conflicts with the local community’s values. Furthermore, Ascent’s application and conduct indicated that it was not seeking a collaborative relationship with the District and intends for there to be no interaction beyond what would be required by law or a charter contract.”
The Durango School District’s full resolution denying Ascent’s application is here.
After the Durango School Board denied Ascent’s charter application, Ascent appealed it to the Colorado State Board of Education, which voted to uphold Durango’s decision in October, 2022.
Ascent also tried to pull its fast-track strategy to avoid local control on the Durango School Board, which did not fall for it.
District 51 School Board’s conservative majority fell for it in May, 2022.