Thursday, February 22, 2024

PA: Hillsdale Headed For State College

Nestled in the middle of Pennsylvania, State College is the home town for Penn State University, but if some local parents have their way, it might also get to welcome one of the country's most conservative christianist colleges as well.

Nittany Mountain Classical Academy would be the new charter school in the area, bringing an attachment to Hillsdale with it. NMCA currently has a single page website, saying the school is "poised to bring new educational opportunities for families in Centre County."  Furthermore, the as yet non-existent school "will stand for unparalleled academic rigor, fostering critical thinking, and a comprehensive curriculum that nurtures a lifelong love for learning."

All of the standard classical academy language is there. 

We are proud advocates of the time-tested and proven approach of Classical Education. Rooted in the rich traditions of Western civilization, Classical Education stands as a beacon of intellectual exploration, fostering a deep understanding of the world. Nittany Mountain Classical Academy will help to form the bedrock of a transformative educational experience, nurturing bright minds and developing future leaders grounded in timeless wisdom.

This is the standard classical academy fare-- the Truth was worked out centuries ago by a bunch of dead white guys and nurtured in the Western World and that "timeless wisdom" is all we need. 

Also, they promise "robust athletics," because, trust me on this, Texas high school sports fans have got nothing on the parents of Happy Valley.

The site also promises that the academy will be the "safest learning environment in Centre County. Period." which tells us something about the beef that NMCA backers have with the public school system.

Four of the parents at the exploratory pitch meeting for the academy are coming off unsuccessful runs for seats on the State College school board. Laurel Zydney lost a bid to hold onto her seat. Michelle Young, Megan Layng, and Barry Fenchek ran on the conservative slate for board seats (Pennsylvania runs non-partisan school board elections). Their thing was cutting spending. Layng was actually dropped by the slate--funny story. Layng and her husband snuck into a district school through the door open for after school practice, then snuck into the library to take pictures of Naughty Books. They were caught and escorted out by security.

The school's organizers "plan to apply for consideration in Hillsdale College's charter school program," which could mean one of several things. Hillsdale has a charter chain of their own, whose mission statement used to include the goal "to recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West,” but they also provide curriculum materials for other charter schools (they've attempted to get a foothold in public districts, but so far, no soap). The organizers appear to want to be a Hillsdale "Member School" which involves providing assistance, advice, materials, training, and support, but not actual ownership.

Hillsdale is often called a private Christian college or even right wing, but it's important to understand that the current version of Hillsdale is full Trumpian MAGA Christion nationalist. After a truly horrific, heartbreaking scandal under the last long-time president,  the college hired as a replacement, Larry Arnn, who still has the job.

Arnn's conservative credentials are impeccable. He's one of the founders of the Claremont Institute, a conservative thinky tank (mission-- "to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life") founded by students of Harry Jaffa (Jaffa was the Goldwater speechwriter who penned the "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice..." line); Hillsdale has a library in named after him. The Institute was quiet for years, but has emerged as a big time Trump booster funded by folks like the DeVos tribe and the Bradleys, and pumping out ideas for selling the Big Lie and the Insurrection. Arnn is also a trustee at the Heritage Foundation, which at one point offered him its presidency. And he once said that "teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country" and also "you don't have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it." And also "Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it's our weapon."

Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. Or as Politico Magazine put it in 2018:

Trump University never died. It’s located in the middle of bucolic southern Michigan, halfway between Lansing and Fort Wayne, 100 miles and a world away from Detroit.

The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh's show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy. In 2017, for some reason, Senator Pat Toomey created a little piece of tax reform that would have carved out a tax treat for Hillsdale and Grove City College. Arnn was on the shortlist for Secretary of Education for Trump, when Trump whipped his super-duper 1776 Commission to create some nationalistic education stuff for the country. They don't have a great history with LGBTQ students. Erik Prince (Betsy DeVos's brother) is a Hillsdale graduate. They regularly host speakers like Betsy DeVos and far-right agitator Chris Rufo

Hillsdale pushes classical education, and while it has learned to more carefully soften its religious goals, it remains part of their brand. Per its website:

In the words of its modern mission statement, the College “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.”

If you really dig into this, I recommend a three part series by Kathryn Joyce at Salon

Dig into materials like Hillsdale's 176 Curriculum, and you find a decidedly right-tilted view. American exceptionalism. The Constitution as holy writ. History as the story of individuals; social forces, systems, none of that stuff matters. The constant challenge of people who want to overthrow the Constitution with "modern" ideas. And every historical event has just one correct explanation and interpretation.

Hillsdale favors textbooks published by a wing of the Bradley Foundation, a conservative think tank whose mission supports grassroots and faith-based groups that serve individuals, strengthen families, and revitalize neighborhoods by sharing a common belief in the self-worth of individuals, the inherent dignity of work, and the need to reduce government dependence. As one writer put it, they supply “the intellectual justification for conservative causes.”

In short, if the taxpayers of State College would like to fund a school devoted to religious right-wing indoctrination, then Nittany Mountain Classical Academy is their perfect opportunity.

Does the charter have a chance? Mark Parfitt was one of the organizers of that meeting, and he had posted something about it on his LinkedIn page, but now it's not there. At the meeting, Parfitt argued that Hillsdale's curriculum focus on civics and Western-focused classical education is something that cannot be found in other area schools, which is probably true.

To establish the charter, supporters would have to get the okay from the local State College School Board (the one that some of these folks were not elected to). If rejected, they would next turn to the state charter appeal board, a group that has become more charter friendly under the Shapiro administration. Stay tuned!

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