While hosting an event this week for a proposed charter school in Cheyenne, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder voiced his concern for the state of the public schools and a need for what he calls school choice.
He told attendees at the Cheyenne Evangelical Free Church that it was alarming how U.S. public schools have become one of most toxic places for children, and he hopes to see local schools be a safe environment. He considers one of those community-minded schools to be Cheyenne Classical Academy, which may be open by September 2023.
His comments on a toxic environment in public schools garnered opposition from some who said he was favoriting favoring charter schools, and it is his responsibility to make sure that traditional public schools are of the highest quality. Schroeder clarified he was not referring to Wyoming schools. He sees them setting the standard, saying that American culture is on a slippery slope.
“A healthy school has zero tolerance for toxic behaviors, toxic attitudes or toxic ideologies,” Schroeder said. “Healthy schools are where the adults are still in charge, students are respectful, common sense prevails, and where our nation’s longstanding traditions are honored, not deleted – which is why the charter school movement is such a critical piece.”
He said he considers the ability to choose a charter school important, because the centralization of the traditional system has shifted public schools from being community schools to being government schools. He believes it has a progressive, nationalized approach, which has chipped away at local control.
“The evangelists of secularism saw two institutions, government and education, as the perfect twin vehicles through which they would remake society in their image,” he said. “Once more, through this quiet revolution, they anticipated the American people would be sleeping at the wheel, and by the time they woke up, it would be too late.”
Schroeder said the end result would be that the federal government would sink its hooks deeper into public schools, with a growing number of strings attached.
“And then the stage is perfectly set for the social engineers to fundamentally transform our society, through the schools, into a world that is radically contrary to everything we hold dear,” he said.
Breaking away from that centralization involves emphasizing parent involvement, bringing back local control, encouraging competition and letting the free market do its work, according to the state superintendent. This sentiment was shared by proponents of the movement in attendance.
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Senior Director for State Advocacy Lisa Grover came to Cheyenne from New Mexico to express not just her support. She offered her skills to lobby the Wyoming Legislature.
“We know what good charter school policy looks like. We know what a good regulatory framework looks like for charter schools. We know how to run schools,” she said. “What we don’t have is the local knowledge and expertise that you all bring here.”
The local knowledge would not just come from residents and parents interested in establishing the Cheyenne Classical Academy.
She is working with Laramie County GOP Vice Chairman Nathan Winters, who was recently chosen to be an academy board member, and charter school builder Craig Horton. Both were in attendance, along with other board members, such as state Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne.
Olsen helped find an additional authorization avenue for charter schools in Wyoming. He co-sponsored a bill passed in the 2021 general session, that allows the State Loan and Investment Board to approve and renew charter schools. Only the local public school board could grant authorization previously, which Winters described as a process where, “the chickens had to go to the fox to ask for permission to live.”
“The local school board has an incentive to make sure that everyone stays within their system. It’s a financial incentive,” he explained. “And so the only opportunity to have any sort of alternative really was stifled as a result of that.”
Cheyenne Classical Academy
The search for opportunities to expand school choice is helping to spur the development of Cheyenne Classical Academy. It is based upon the model of a Christian, liberal arts college in Michigan called Hillsdale College, as well as Liberty Common School, a nationally recognized charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Academica Colorado Executive Director Horton was influential in developing Liberty Common School, and is now a part of the team helping create Cheyenne Classical Academy.
He told attendees there are two sides to a charter school. The first is a curriculum based around reading, writing and arithmetic, while the second is more unique. It is the values and principles upon which the school is built.
Cheyenne’s charter school will focus on being patriotic, with an understanding of the American republic as governed by the Constitution, and morally grounded in the Declaration of Independence, according to Horton. He said these were inspired in part by professor E.D. Hirsch, who developed a curriculum known as a core knowledge foundation, focused on 5,000 pieces of information every American should have as a base.
Horton explained the developers of the school believe America is a good place, even though he said there are many who would argue it is on the precipice of being horribly broken. He told attendees to look back in history, and described times when journalists were jailed for writing about the government, or when the founding founders fought one another.
“And don’t forget racism. Right now, the racial crisis in America is at a boiling point, but we’re not in a situation where we have legalized slavery,” he added. “Our country has come out of times that compared to now, are horrible, and we came out of those times because we understand that our Declaration of Independence is a morally principled document.”
Other curriculums and methods used by the classical academy include Singapore National Math Curriculum, scientifically proven reading strategies and Great Books. Horton said the Great Books curriculum has an emphasis on introducing the best of Western literature and tradition, which moves through Greco-Roman, European and American history.
Winters assured stakeholders critical race theory would not be taught in any of the classrooms, which he said was being taught in Wyoming public schools. During the Legislature’s recent budget session, it was shown there were elements of the 1619 Project introduced to students, which is an initiative by the New York Times Magazine to reframe the history of Black people in America.
“Many people try to tear down the glory of our history, and call us systemic racists,” he said. “Which of course, as you can see across America, people have seen that that narrative is absolutely not only damaging, but damning to this country.”
Although many parents have signed a letter of interest for their kids to attend Cheyenne Classical Academy, other community members are less convinced.
Sankofa African Heritage Awareness founder James Peebles attended the event and said he was disheartened and frustrated after listening to Schroeder denounce public schools, which he believes to be an attempt to enhance the official’s proposed reimaging and privatization of schools.
Peebles said based on Schroeder’s testimony, he wants “to extract the hands of Wyomingites and the authority of democratic district governments, simply to be replaced with a private, conservative entity, posing as an anti-woke organization. But is equivalent to the overnight racist Christian academies that mushroomed in the south immediately after Brown vs. Board of Education and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
He was joined in his wariness by Catholic priest and educator Charlie Hardy. He told Schroeder he was concerned by the lack of diversity on the school’s board, which is six white men and a white woman, and his impression is there would not be a focus on the cultures of other world regions. Winters said other civilizations would be included.
Peebles also questioned the curriculum and the use of the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, which is available online to download and a part of the upper-level teaching lessons at charter schools in the program. He said it was created in response to the 1619 Project, and emphasizes “white exceptionalism” as a rigid classical education.