NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Phillip Schwenk is a potential principal for American Classical Academy (ACE). Had the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission overridden local school boards in favor of ACE, he would have been the principal for American Classical Academy Clarksville-Montgomery.
Of course, ACE pulled its appeal for charter schools in Tennessee just under a week before the vote was set to happen Wednesday morning.
To get caught up on everything leading up to the appeals hearings, we have a full primer for you here.
State Capitol reporter Chris O’Brien sat down with Schwenk for an exclusive Q&A and asked questions about ACE, its affiliation with the controversial Hillsdale College, its curriculum, Larry Arnn’s comments and more.
Below are some notable moments from the interview, but you can watch the full interview here.
O’Brien: “Can I just ask, what happened? Why did ACE pull out? Where did that come from?”
Schwenk: “Well, I think there’s two primary reasons. We became very aware in this process that there were a couple things that we wanted more time to rectify in our application. When we were denied the opportunity to postpone this decision, we felt that it was going to be more difficult for us to kind of polish those aspects of our application that we wanted to.”
O’Brien: “Did the commission give you any sort of indication as to what their choice might have been?”
Schwenk: “I, personally, have no idea–this type of thing–what’s interesting is that I’m not new to the charter world. I’m fully aware that there’s the work that we do at the ground level, which is loving kids and educating kids, that’s what we do. Then, there’s the politics of our work, and politics is unpredictable. So, I had no idea, you can’t really say what’s going to happen in these kinds of decisions.”
O’Brien: “Right, so the decision to pull out was not related to anything the charter commission might have made?”
Schwenk: “Yeah, there’s no way that I would have been able to predict that, so no.”
O’Brien: I imagine, at some level, you can understand teachers being off-put by (Hillsdale President Larry Arnn’s) comments.
Schwenk: “Oh, sure, sure. No, how we say things matters, even if there could be aspects of it, I understand the idea of that we should be teaching teachers content, that they should know what they’re talking about. When he gets into the idea of free thought and the idea of method and control, these are things that teachers argue about. That’s pedagogical [sic] conversation, like how much do you control kids, how much do you want to make them freethinkers? And that’s really where that conversation was. But, obviously, the way that it was said, I understand why people would be upset by that. But, I don’t think that it’s indicative of our work, and I don’t think it’s indicative of his heart.”
O’Brien: I’m going to read a quote from Larry Arnn if that’s alright with you. He said this about charter schools: “They have to do what we say if they want to continue to use our name.”
O’Brien: I imagine that’s where a lot of the skepticism is coming at some level.
Schwenk: “Well, I think let’s put that in context. We’re using a curriculum that has Hillsdale’s name on it. So, obviously, if we start to distort that curriculum, then I could understand why Hillsdale would start to become, like, reservant; ‘well, that’s not what we really put out as a curriculum that has our name on it.’”
O’Brien: Larry Arnn has said he handpicked Joel Schellhammer to be the CEO of American Classical Education. My thought is that how is there not some influence there from Hillsdale? I know they’re your affiliate, but Hillsdale’s president said these comments. How can you not associate Larry Arnn with American Classical Education if he handpicked the CEO?
Schwenk: “I hand select the teachers in my school. So, the idea that those teachers have to then act exactly how I am at all times and everything is not how we think at all. In fact, if we’re going to expect kids to be free thinkers, you have to have adults who practice free thinking. So, just because someone’s chosen to do a task, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a certain agency and independence that may or may not be in contradiction to the original ‘picker.’”
O’Brien: When people talk about this affiliation between Hillsdale and ACE and how much has been made of it over the past couple of months, what’s your response or take on that?
Schwenk: “The word I’ve been using a lot is this idea of friendship. We have a like question that we’re trying to address. We think that kids can benefit from a classical education. What Hillsdale College has done through Barney Charter School Initiative is that they put together this curriculum guide that is fantastic. I’ve seen curriculums all across this country, LA, Cleveland, Toledo, all over the place. It is the strongest curriculum I’ve ever seen.”
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O’Brien: I think the question that a lot of people are going to ask if they watch this interview is, ‘How can you be friends with somebody who’s made such an unflattering comment about teachers, calling them dumb, whatever the case may be?’
Schwenk: “Are you saying Joel being friends with Larry, me being friends with Larry?”
O’Brien: No, I’m saying ACE – you’ve described it as a friendship. How can ACE be friends with somebody who has made that comment about teachers?
Schwenk: “So, again, the mistake here, there’s two parts of that. I can answer that as a personal individual – there’s a lot of people that I love that I don’t always agree with what they say. So, I can start with that, I mean, we all say things. In fact, I would say some of my closest friendships, people have totally different points of view. But, the thing that people keep making the mistake is, this isn’t a controlling piece at all. Yes, he’s the president of Hillsdale. That is not what we do every day…I think it’s the distance that people aren’t understanding. I think people think Larry is at our schools telling us what to do, and that’s not the case.”
O’Brien: What is your response to claims that ACE’s curriculum alters history?
Schwenk: “Okay, so, I think the nice word that I’ll put out right away is that’s hogwash. It’s not true. To me, the people who are trying to do that, it’s entirely political, and frankly, the vast majority of them have probably never even read the curriculum. What they’ve done is they’ve been told about a line they don’t like, which, even on a macro level, I could do that with any textbook. I could give you any textbook (and say), ‘I don’t like that line.’”
O’Brien: There’s a lot of concern that ACE is going to try to glorify America and wipe out all of its mistakes, as if we didn’t have slavery, as if we didn’t have…I can’t think of another example off the top of my head, but you understand the point that I’m making. Do you want to give a response to that?
Schwenk: “…The suggestions we’ve been seeing in the media is, ‘Well, we don’t talk about racism,’ or ‘We’re not going to talk about race,’ or ‘We’re not going to talk about slavery.’ I don’t know how you would talk about American history and not talk about those things.”
O’Brien: What’s the future for ACE? Do you plan to try again here in Tennessee?
Schwenk: “Absolutely, well yeah. This isn’t the end. Our hope, still, we would like to–the way I want to phrase this, it’s not just that we want to bring a bunch of classical schools. The families here want that. We’ve heard from many, many, many families that want classical education as an option. So, it makes sense for us to continue to push toward the support of these parents, their kids, teachers that have shown a very strong interest in this. There’s a community here that wants classical education as an option. The thing we continue to put out there, this isn’t an attempt to blast the systems that exist. We’re not going after major districts.”
O’Brien: As for the plans for the future, are there any counties y’all have your eye on for the next few applications?
Schwenk: “Obviously, you have the counties that we’ve already been considering. It’s not like we’ve totally forgotten about them. So, they’re still there. I don’t have any specific that I would say, ‘this is the county we’re going to next,’ kind of thing. We’re thinking about the general landscape in Tennessee. Are there places where parents – and it seems that there are – there are parents all over the state that want schools like this. The ones that you have top of mind are the ones that we’ve been talking about. We’ve been talking about Rutherford, Madison and Montgomery. It’s not those are off, it’s just for now, we’ve pulled back. We’re kind of realigning our thoughts and our application and making sure that we have the strongest application we can have.”
Reporter Note: Answers have been cut for length, watch the full interview here.