Moms for Liberty activists starting taxpayer-funded charter school
Activists from a South Carolina chapter of Moms for Liberty — a group best known for opposing LGBTQ rights, pushing for the removal of library books, and fighting racially inclusive curriculum — are starting their own public charter school. The new school, to be known as the Ashley River Classical Academy, will be fully taxpayer-funded, but is structured in a way that effectively avoids any state oversight or accountability. The school will use the 1776 Curriculum, created by Hillsdale College, a small right-wing institution with close ties to former president Donald Trump. Adam Laats, a historian at New York's Binghamton University, described the 1776 Curriculum as "the red [MAGA] hat in textbook form."
Three of the seven board members for Ashley River Classical Academy are leaders in the Charleston Moms for Liberty chapter, including chair Tara Wood, treasurer Janine Nagrodsky, and education committee head Nicole McCarthy. In 2022, Wood wrote that a "significant amount of the Charleston County School District's budget is spent on third-party consultants who are trying to sexualize our children through inappropriate books and lessons." Wood's background, according to Ashley River Classical Academy's charter application, is not in education but in "real estate and facility development." The school is planning to open for the 2024-25 academic year and the children of board members will be given priority admission.
In general, charter schools in South Carolina are approved and overseen by the state's Public Charter District or the local school board where the school is based. These entities sponsor the school's application, allowing them to open and monitor their performance. If a charter school is not meeting the needs of students, the sponsor is obligated to revoke the charter.
In 2017, the Public Charter District was poised to close several South Carolina charter schools that were "abysmal failures." The schools were "started by people who clearly didn't have the academic heft to run a school or the business acumen to run a business" or "private companies more interested in turning a profit than educating children.
But those charter schools were not closed. A provision was written into the South Carolina charter law to allow colleges and universities to also serve as charter sponsors. It was included to allow South Carolina State University "to open its own charter school." But, in 2017, a small Christian institution, Erskine College, declared itself a charter school sponsor. The only thing required for Erskine College or another institution to become a charter school sponsor is to "register," there are no standards or oversight from the state. Erskine College promptly became the sponsor for the schools the state was planning to close.
Erskine College is controlled by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church. Both Erskine College and the ARP Church have taken a fundamentalist turn in recent years. Today, "anyone applying to work at Erskine must sign a form affirming their religious views align with the ARP Church." They must also affirm "abortion is a sin, that 'in all instances, one should seek to preserve the life of the unborn child,' that homosexuality is a sin and monogamous marriage is 'God’s intended design for humanity.'" The extreme policies, according to the Index Journal, have "alienate[d] faculty and students and has resulted in a drop in alumni giving." The school's mission "is to glorify God as a Christian academic community where students integrate knowledge and faith." Total enrollment has dropped from over 1,000 in 2008 to about 850 today.
As a result, Erskine College has faced severe financial distress, running a deficit and quickly eating into its modest endowment to pay the bills. The money woes have threatened the accreditation of Erskine College by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). In December, the SACSCOC announced that Erskine College was "denied reaffirmation" of its accreditation due to a failure to "manage its financial resources in a responsible manner." The deficiency could result in the revocation of Erskine University's accreditation by SACSCOC in less than a year.
Erskine College has a compelling financial incentive to sponsor South Carolina charter schools since, as a sponsor, it receives "2 percent of the school’s state appropriations." Erskine currently sponsors 28 charter schools, generating millions of dollars in revenue.
Erskine College is sponsoring Ashley River Classical Academy, one of seven charter schools in the university's "pipeline." So even though Ashley River Classical Academy is being funded by state taxpayers, Erskine College will be the sole arbiter of whether the school founded by Moms for Liberty activists is meeting its obligation to students.
Ashley River Classical Academy has hired Alexandria Spry to serve as its first Head of School. Spry previously ran a charter school using the 1776 Curriculum in Florida, Jacksonville Classical Academy East. For the 2022-23 school year, when Spry served as Head of School, Jacksonville Classical Academy East received a grade of "F" from the Florida Department of Education. The school, under Spry's leadership, saw a low percentage of students receiving passing grades in state assessments for English (29%), math (23%), and science (12%).
Spry is scheduled to address a meeting of the Charleston Moms for Liberty chapter this Thursday. Also appearing at the same meeting is a member of the local school board who "allegedly threatened violence against a transgender teacher" and a representative from the South Carolina chapter of Gays Against Groomers (GAG), an anti-trans group. Among other things, GAG lobbies for the removal of books with LGBTQ characters from school libraries. “The school is not a political project,” Spry told the Post and Courier. “We are just trying to provide the best education we can.”
A request for comment, sent to the email address listed on Ashley River Classical Academy's website, bounced back as undeliverable.
Meet the board
The website for the Charleston County chapter of Moms for Liberty states that the group is “dedicated to the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Wood, who founded the chapter in August 2021, decided to start the group after attending a meeting where an “education expert spoke about critical race theory [CRT].” While Wood reportedly “does not think that critical race theory is being taught in schools,” she does think that its “tenants” are “trickl[ing] down into K-12 curriculums.” In an interview with the Post and Courier, Wood said, “Anytime you make the narrative ‘White man bad, dark man good’ that’s CRT and that’s horrible.” (CRT is a complex legal theory that is not taught in K-12 schools.)
Wood has been “talking to the Trump campaign about meeting with the former president” and “has already met with Trump’s state director.” Last April, Wood introduced Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) at an event in South Carolina.
Wood is reportedly friends with right-wing influencer Corey Allen. According to the Post and Courier, Wood has been seen on multiple occasions with Allen, who helped organize a rally that Proud Boys attended and was “on the steps of the U.S. Capitol livestreaming the Jan[uary] 6 insurrection.” Allen has since appeared with Wood at fundraising events and meetings for Moms for Liberty. On Facebook, Wood thanked Allen for attending a fundraising event in a comment, saying, “Thank you again for being there, Corey.”
Nagrodsky has also promoted posts by Allen on social media. Nagrodsky posts anti-trans memes and conspiracy theories about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. On January 1, Nagrodsky reposted a Facebook post stating, “Well, I’m off to knock down the pyramids, because Egyptians had slaves 5,000 years ago. Wish me luck!”
The Board of Directors also includes Joel Schellhammer, who received his Bachelor’s Degree from Hillsdale College and was hired in February 2022 as CEO of “[a] new charter-school management organization associated with Hillsdale College.” Another board member is Elizabeth Crocker, who attended Erskine College, “served on the Erskine College Teacher Education Committee” and also worked at Erskine College as an adjunct professor.
Inside Hillsdale's "patriotic" education
The 1776 Curriculum, which Hillsdale claims “seeks to tell the entire grand narrative of the American story,” promotes a biased and often inaccurate version of American history.
For example, the 1776 Curriculum claims America's Founding Fathers “expressed regret and fear of divine retribution” about slavery. In reality, Thomas Jefferson wrote about his belief of “biological differences between blacks and whites” and reportedly had a relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Instead of freeing his slaves in his will, James Madison chose to leave them to his wife, who “sold them off to pay debts.” George Washington left instructions to not free his slaves after his death until after his wife had also passed, and “aggressively pursued runaway” slaves. None of this is mentioned in the 1776 Curriculum.
A lesson in the 1776 Curriculum also encourages downplaying the history of slavery in America and emphasizing slavery in other areas of the world instead, stating that “of the nearly 11 million Africans who survived being brought to the Western Hemisphere, around 3 percent, or about 350,000, were brought to the North American continent” and that the “rest of all Africans [were] taken to other colonies in the Caribbean and South America.”
The 1776 Curriculum includes misleading information about the history of women’s rights in America, arguing that by saying “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, “the Founders meant that men and women share equally in human dignity and in possession of natural rights or freedoms.” The reality is that women at the time could not vote, were granted limited property rights, and could not earn their own income if they were married. The 1776 Curriculum is also circumspect about the cause of the Civil War, arguing many Southerners were motivated by “states’ rights” instead of “preserv[ing] the institution of slavery.”
According to a November report by the Collegian, Hillsdale College’s student newspaper, “the Hillsdale K-12 Education program [currently] has 23 member schools, 14 candidate member schools, and 69 curriculum schools across 33 states.” But some Hillsdale-affiliated schools have struggled with performance issues. According to a report by WFTS Tampa Bay, in the 2021-2022 school year, “three of Hillsdale’s member charter schools” in Florida “earned an overall ‘C’ by Florida’s Department of Education.” Other Hillsdale-affiliated schools have “complain[ed] of interference in individual school management and high fees charged by Barney Charter School Initiative, [Hillsdale’s] support arm.”
In some states, Hillsdale has had difficulty finding support or sponsors for new charter schools. In 2022, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) announced that he planned to open “50 Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools,” but was faced with opposition after a video showing Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn at an event with Lee was released. In the video, Arnn says that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges.” Arnn later tried to walk back the comments, stating that he did not “mean ‘unintelligent’” but instead meant “ill-conceived” or “misdirected.”
Arnn, whose yearly compensation is reportedly over $1 million, objects to teaching about race and sexuality in schools. In an email obtained by News Channel 5 Nashville, Arnn said that “highly-charged subjects like racism and sexuality” should not be taught in the classroom, but instead teachers should focus on “classes of substance.”
In 2020, Arnn was named the leader of Trump’s 1776 Commission, which was created to advance a “patriotic education.” Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum was released “[s]ix months after President Joe Biden dissolved the commission,” although Hillsdale denies any “formal connection” between the two.