The dress code at the Charter Day School, a supposedly nonsectarian, publicly funded K-8 charter school in Leland, North Carolina, requires that female students wear skirts, jumpers, or “skorts.” The school’s founder justifies the dress code by explaining that girls are “fragile vessels.” The family of a kindergartner complained that the dress code violated their daughter’s civil liberties, and a federal appeals court, in the case of Charter Day School v. Peltier, had no trouble agreeing that the requirement was “based on blatant gender stereotypes” and a “clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause.” But the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to hear the case; if so, the court’s right-wing majority may well compel the girls to expose their legs in the name of “religious liberty.”
This looks like standard culture-war fare. And it is that. But it is also part of a broader, often overlooked story about those on the right who are profiting from the dismantling of America’s public education system—and in some cases, as in North Carolina, they’re doing so by clearing the way for public funding for ideologically and religiously conservative charter schools.
Charter Day School is part of the Roger Bacon Academy, a four-school charter network in the state. It is the creation of Baker Mitchell Jr., a North Carolina businessman, friend of right-wing political funder Art Pope, and a staunch advocate of “free markets,” “deregulation,” and school privatization. Mitchell’s chain of charter schools has taken in tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding; Charter Day School receives 95 percent of its funding from federal, state, and local governmental authorities. As ProPublica has detailed, Mitchell also owns and operates the companies that supply these schools with just about everything they buy or lease: the buildings, the computers, the desks, the educational training programs, and more.
How does Mitchell, who has declined to make his own salary public, get away with this type of self-dealing? This is where the skirts come in. These schools can’t be bad, we are encouraged to believe, because Mitchell’s supposedly nonsectarian charter schools teach “traditional values.” Whose values? The pledge that students at the Roger Bacon Academy are required to adhere to includes the stipulation that they will guard against “the stains of falsehood from the fascination with experts” and “over-reliance on rational argument,” along with a promise to “obey authority” and be “morally straight.”
For several years, Mitchell reaped the benefits of this sweetheart deal with himself unimpeded. And yet when he was finally called out on his discriminatory dress code, he claimed to be a victim of anti-religious bias, pulling in amicus briefs from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia; the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty; the Religious Freedom Institute; and the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic, the legal group that is representing Catholic dioceses in Tulsa and Oklahoma City in their bid to create a taxpayer-funded religious charter school. (In the latter instance, Oklahoma’s statewide charter school board unanimously rejected the application on Tuesday—not on constitutional grounds but due to questions over the school’s plan for special education students, governance structure, and financial arrangements. Many observers note that a legal challenge is likely to follow any decision made by the charter board.)
Mitchell’s moneymaking scheme is increasingly representative of the direction that the “school choice” movement is taking. Two factions now dominate the assault on the American system of public education, and you can think of them as the proselytizers and the privatizers. Both groups have long supported voucher initiatives that divert taxpayer money to privately operated schools, often with a lightly disguised religious and/or right-wing agenda. In recent years, however, both have recognized that the lightly regulated charter school sector can be almost as effective in furthering their aims.
From its beginnings, America’s Christian nationalist movement has been committed to the destruction of public education. D. James Kennedy, the influential preacher whose ministry received millions of dollars from the family of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, railed against the “infusion of an atheistic, amoral, evolutionary, socialistic, one-world, anti-American system of education in our public schools.” He and other religious right leaders have long feared that public education is just a means of drawing children away from Christian faith and toward secular ways of thinking. One answer, they believed, was to take over the public schools through various means.
These ideologues have also long understood that taking over the education system would be a financial bonanza. The United States spends over a half-trillion dollars per year on public education. If even a single-digit percentage could be diverted to religious organizations, this could put them on a new economic footing.
The privatizers originally came to the public education game for different reasons. Billionaire-funded think tanks champion the free market as the solution to all problems in education. By “free market,” however, all too often they mean a lightly regulated, state-chartered “market” where parents funnel taxpayer money to private schools. As a consequence, “school choice” activism has unleashed the kind of noncompetitive, highly politicized, and cronyistic schemes that Baker Mitchell represents.
Across America, charter operators with sectarian agendas are presently indoctrinating students on the taxpayer dime. For example, American Heritage Academy in Cottonwood, Arizona, a school that is part of the 17-school Edkey/Sequoia charter network, celebrates a set of “Principles of Liberty” that include: “The role of religion is foundational,” “To protect rights God revealed certain divine laws,” and “Free market and minimal government best supports prosperity.” In Texas, Allen Beck, the founder of Advantage Academy, a four-campus charter school funded by taxpayers, has said he established the schools in order to bring “the Bible, prayer, and patriotism back into the public school.” Textbooks in the mandatory American government class at Heritage Academy (distinct from the American Heritage Academy) include the claim that the U.S. Constitution is based on “biblical principles” and assert that “God” destroyed a French fleet that threatened the American colonies.
Meanwhile, financial scandals in the charter sector keep piling up, such as the Idaho charter school executive who directed taxpayer money to companies owned by members of her family and the Texas charter executives who leased a $15 million private jet while under investigation for financial mismanagement. The scandals have sparked wide-scale investigations in regional media outlets and national outlets. The Heritage Academy network, along with state officials, has been sued over alleged misuse of public money. And yet the network remains a favorite within Arizona’s “school choice” movement. In early 2019, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, under the guidance of DeVos, participated in a “School Choice Week” celebration at a Heritage Academy campus.
The charter sector is fragmented and complex, and many charter advocates simply aim to deliver a quality education to America’s schoolchildren. But in regions where the sector lacks regulation and oversight, it has been a boon for profiteers. In Arizona, with the approval of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, state Representative Eddie Farnsworth reaped $11.8 million in selling his four-school charter group to a nonprofit run by some of his buddies. Glenn Way, founder of Arizona’s American Leadership Academy, scored over $18 million with no-bid contracts to build charters, paid for largely with public money.
The campaign to present public schools as hotbeds of “woke” ideologies is not just about changing actual coursework (which almost never actually involves the dreaded “critical race theory”). The short-term goal is to normalize, explicitly or implicitly, an anti-gay and white supremacist culture at schools. A more important long-term goal is to undermine confidence in public education—the better to replace it with publicly funded private and religious schools, operated by conservative organizations and charter operators.
Hillsdale College, the Michigan-based Christian college whose president, Larry Arnn, is a member of the right-wing Council for National Policy, is laying the foundations for exactly that future. Charter networks linked with Hillsdale have entered the business in a big way, securing commitments and partnerships from hard-right politicians such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, who made a deal to launch dozens of ideologically conservative charter schools in his state. After Arnn was filmed disparaging teachers at an event with Lee, the ensuing backlash compelled Hillsdale to withdraw its charter applications. In February, however, it reapplied to open Hillsdale-affiliated charters in five locations.
It doesn’t take much to see through the agenda of education profiteers like Arnn and Mitchell, whose case belongs nowhere near the Supreme Court. But right-wing activists have turned grievance politics into a successful legal strategy, lobbing accusations of religious persecution at anyone who might stop conservatives from using public resources and taxpayer money to impose their values and prejudices on others. The aim is straightforward: to set up a network of state-sponsored education providers who indoctrinate the next generation in conservative religious and political ideology, and to make sure the money keeps flowing to all the right people.