April 12, 2023

Political fight over Hillsdale charter schools comes to Indy

Carlos Perkins, senior pastor of Bethel Cathedral African Methodist Episcopal Church, explains why he is against Valor Classical Academy receiving a charter to open in Pike Township as Tim Ziebarth, a Grace College executive dean listens. Perkins spoke at a public hearing about the proposed school held by charter authorizer Grace College on Monday, April 10, 2023 at the Embassy Suites in northwest Indianapolis. - Eric Weddle / WFYI

Carlos Perkins, senior pastor of Bethel Cathedral African Methodist Episcopal Church, explains why he is against Valor Classical Academy receiving a charter to open in Pike Township as Tim Ziebarth, a Grace College executive dean listens. Perkins spoke at a public hearing about the proposed school held by charter authorizer Grace College on Monday, April 10, 2023 at the Embassy Suites in northwest Indianapolis.

Eric Weddle / WFYI
Updated: 7 a.m., Monday, April 17, 2023

Central Indiana parents are sparring over a proposed charter school with ties to a conservative Christian college at a moment when public education is at the center of national and state politics.

Valor Classical Academy initially planned to locate in Hamilton County but an attempt to claim a building in Carmel failed in court. Now, leaders are considering opening in Northwest Indianapolis in the boundaries of Pike Township schools. The location near Interstate 465 is convenient for the suburban families it aims to attract.

At a public hearing this week, however, dozens of local residents spoke out against opening the school in their community.

“Our fear is that this school will cater to white students, ousting struggling students, especially struggling black students,” said Carlos Perkins, a veteran educator and senior pastor of Bethel Cathedral African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We do not need this school in our district.”

The hearing was hosted by Grace College as part of the legal process for deciding whether to grant the school a charter. Valor was previously approved to open in Carmel, but if the school organizers hope to open in Pike Township it needs additional approval.

The charter board at Grace, a private Christian college in Winona Lake, had been expected to vote April 17. But the meeting was cancelled "until further notice," according to a public notice.

Valor leaders are also continuing to look for locations in Hamilton County for the school, said board President Holly Wilson.

The Valor board hopes to open the proposed school in fall 2023. It would serve kindergarten through sixth grade when it opens and add new grades each year. In order for the school to open at the proposed Indianapolis location, the property would need a zoning variance to be used for a school.. 

Supporters of the school, several of whom are involved in its founding, spoke during the public hearing Monday held at a northwest side Embassy Suites hotel. They said Valor hopes to offer a kind of education — small, traditional in its academic approach and in line with their values — that they don’t have at other public schools. 

"I've always wanted to send my kids to public school,” said Rachel Gallo, who attended and taught in public schools. But she currently home schools her children. “We do not feel the public schools are providing the academic, social and emotional learning environment that matches our values and standards.”

Charter schools are public schools that are granted a contract to operate by one of several authorizers in Indiana, including Grace College. A charter school is directly overseen by a board that is not elected by voters.

Valor would be the second charter school in Indiana affiliated with Hillsdale College in Michigan. Grace College also authorizes Seven Oaks Classical School, a Hillsdale affiliated school in Ellettsville. A private Christian college that has courted national attention for its conservative politics, Hillsdale provides curriculum to charter and private schools around the country. 

Nationally, charter schools are increasingly diverse in their approach and who they serve, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Still, he said Hillsdale affiliated schools stand out. 

“It's very rare that we see such an aggressive interstate network of schools whether they're on the left or the conservative right,” Fuller said.

‘A traditional education’

The Hillsdale model of education is academically traditional, with an emphasis on teacher-led instruction and instilling skills like phonics and grammar. It’s also ideological. The website says it “emphasizes the centrality of the Western tradition in the study of history, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts.” 

The college released history materials called the 1776 curriculum, which were inspired by a Trump administration commission and are in direct competition with the 1619 Project, which aims to center slavery in the teaching of American history. 

In a newsletter, Valor said that the future head of school was receiving training at Hillsdale, including workshops by controversial political figures Jordan B. Peterson and Leonard Sax.

Still, Wilson said that although Hillsdale would provide curriculum, it would not own, govern or manage the school. 

The local board is not aiming to create a politically conservative school, Wilson said. 

"We're not Republican. We're just conservative in in the manner of, I would say, traditional,” Wilson said in a call with WFYI. “It's a traditional education, and it's a deep and narrow study of things where there's a mastery of the core disciplines.”

Joel Harsin, who lives in Indianapolis Public Schools and hopes to send his children to Valor, said that he does not consider Valor’s approach politically conservative. 

"I just want to make that clear, you do not have to send your kids to Valor if you don't want to,” Harsin said. “Since when is respect, penmanship, all these things — the core values Valor stands for — since when are those exclusively, some sort of right wing, Christian foundation? Those are things we should all strive for.” 

The focus on classical education that Valor’s founders believe is core to what they offer families faced intense push back at the public meeting. Some residents argued that existing public schools already meet student needs.

Others questioned the value of the approach altogether. 

“Pike schools are full of children of color from families who have been here for generations, and many who are here are from around the world,” said Angela Barnes, a Pike school board member and public school teacher. “The Classical Age you seek to revive was not ever inclusive of women or people of color.” 

“We have no desire to return our children to a time of education when they were not included,” Barnes added, “because the leaders felt our cultures were irrelevant.”

Indiana has more than 100 charter schools. But many aim to serve children of color in urban areas, like Indianapolis and Gary. Valor anticipates that even if it opens in Indianapolis, the majority of its students will come from suburbs surrounding the city, like Carmel, Zionsville, and Westfield.

Many parents move to the affluent Northern Indianapolis suburbs because of their reputation for good schools. Those areas have historically been conservative, but in recent years they’ve become more politically diverse. School board meetings and elections are now political hotbeds, as conservative parents argue that schools are teaching students critical race theory and promoting LGBTQ identities.

Although Valor’s leaders don’t focus on those issues in their pitch for the school, the ongoing debates could help attract some families.

Jackie O’Keefe said she plans to send her children to Valor.

"When it comes to education, the word conservative to me, lends itself to a focus of academics, math, science, reading, spelling, pencil and paper not sitting in front of a screen. Not social justice, not pronouns are sexuality,”  O’Keefe said. “For our family, a classical education checks all of those boxes.”

Charter schools receive direct per-student funding similar to traditional school corporations and are eligible to receive additional per-student grants. But they don’t receive local property tax funds to cover transportation or facilities. 

Valor officials said they've been awarded $400,000 from the federal Charter School Program Quality Counts Grant program.

Contact WFYI education reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at dmccoy@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @dylanpmccoy.

Contact WFYI education editor Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle

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