How a Wisconsin tribe helped launch a Trump-approved ‘Make America Great Again’ charter school
Children In The Classroom With The Teacher (Shutterstock)

The Lake Country Classical Academy, an independent charter school authorized by the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College in northern Wisconsin, opened in September in the Milwaukee suburb of Oconomowoc, about a five-hour drive south on Interstate 94 from Hayward, where the college is located — about as far away from Ojibwe land and tribal members as you can get without leaving Wisconsin.

The academy advertises itself as a back-to-basics school that emphasizes Latin and phonics and takes a top-down, “teacher-led” approach to education, instilling “virtues of character” in its students. It is the first of its kind in Wisconsin, part of a nationwide network of charter schools that receive curriculum, teacher training, and mentoring from Hillsdale College, a small Christian college in Michigan with deep ties to the Trump administration. The “1776 curriculum” devised by Hillsdale and used by the Lake Country Classical Academy is “the latest push to continue former President Donald Trump’s mission to create a ‘patriotic education,’” according to a July 2021 article in Politico. Larry Arnn, Hillsdale’s president, led the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, created to promote a positive vision of America, in what Politico calls “a direct challenge to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which explored how racism and inequality shaped the founding of the country.”

Wisconsin public school advocates see the new charter school as a backdoor way to divert tax dollars from public schools and into quasi-private academies. Republican legislators have featured the school at hearings as they push for an expansion of tribal colleges’ ability to grant charters. Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, particularly objects to what she sees as policymakers “politicking with some of the state’s most vulnerable kids in order to advance a political project or agenda.”

Others see something peculiar about the tribe’s sponsorship of a school curriculum that appears to whitewash history.

Hillsdale is “well known as a kind of fortress for conservative, and often racist views.”

– Gary Miron, Western Michigan University

“It’s really surprising that a Native American group would be sponsoring a Hillsdale charter school,” says Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University and a fellow at the National Education Policy Center. In Michigan, where he lives, Miron says, Hillsdale is “well known as a kind of fortress for conservative, and often racist views.”

According to Matt Villeneuve, assistant professor of United States history and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa descent, “The history of Lac Courte Oreilles is that of a self-determining nation asserting its educational sovereignty. The irony is whether a charter school authorized under this sovereign power with such curriculum can adequately teach its students about this very history.”

But Dr. Russell Swagger, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College president, said in a statement when the school opened that the college “is committed to partnering with LCCA and supports its approach to education.” Swagger did not return multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story. “There is great synergy between our missions,” he said in his statement. “Like LCCA, we believe in the importance of developing students in mind and character, as well as the value of educational sovereignty.”

“Educational sovereignty,” is the key concept bringing together the tribe and members of an influential rightwing Christian school choice movement. The partnership has profound implications for the future of public schools in Wisconsin.

Touring the academy

At a school open house on Dec. 2, an all-white crowd of about 80 parents, many juggling pajama-wearing toddlers, gathered in the gym at the Holy Trinity Church, which houses Lake Country Classical Academy grades K-4. The school’s interim principal, Margaret Diagneau, a pleasant, energetic young woman, gave a slide presentation on classical education and “what makes LCCA a Hillsdale College Member School.” Point No. 1: “The centrality of the Western tradition in the study of history, literature, philosophy and the fine arts.”

The parents toured Lake Country Classical Academy’s K-4 classrooms in the church, which is temporarily housing about 200 of the school’s 421 students. The board is “vigorously pursuing options” for a new location for next year, Diagneau said. Another 200-plus students attend grades 5-9 on the school’s second campus at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, a short drive past the twinkling Christmas lights in postcard-pretty downtown Oconomowoc. Lake Country plans to add a grade next year and over the next few years expand to a 750-800 student K-12 school on a single campus.

“A lot of our virtues align with the seven sacred gifts that the Native Americans teach, and honesty and wisdom and truth and all these things were in alignment.”

– Kristina Vourax, Lake Country Classical Academy founder and board president

At the upper school, two boys in school uniform khakis and blue vests guided parents through the Latin, science, and math classrooms. Neat rows of desks all faced the front of the room. There was a Christmas tree in every class.

One parent on the tour was conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, who introduced himself, smiling broadly and shaking hands with other parents. (Hagedorn helped found the K-8 Augustine Academy in Waukesha County in 2016. The school’s policy banning LGBTQ teachers, students and parents stirred controversy and became a campaign issue during his Supreme Court race.) Almost no one on the tour wore a mask. The school’s COVID-19 policy, Diagneau explained, is “we put the responsibility on parents to make sure kids are healthy.” Masks are optional.

As for the school’s relationship with the Ojibwe tribe, Diagneau said, “It’s an amazing story that the tribe saw the value of the Hillsdale curriculum and the emphasis on freedom and virtue.”

Relationship with the tribe

The Frequently Asked Questions page on the Lake Country Classical Academy website poses the question “I understand that LCCA is authorized by the LCO Ojibwe College. Will there be a Native American influence in LCCA’s curriculum?”

Answer: “We will stay true to our Hillsdale K-12 classical curriculum, which is already rich in American History which began with the first Americans — the Native Americans.”

“The other authorizers all declined.”

– Margaret Daigneau, Lake Country Classical interim principal

In addition, the FAQ page states, “We plan on offering a supplemental curriculum that will allow students to take a deeper dive into learning about the history, language, customs, and values of Native American people, with a focus on the Ojibwe and other Wisconsin tribes.”

Kindergarteners at the school had a unit on Native Americans, Diagneau said, and “they are working on having someone come visit from that tribe — the Ojibwe.”

The biggest point of connection between the tribe and Lake Country Classical Academy, she says, is a belief in “excellence in education.” Also, the tribe is “deeply committed to the idea of parental choice.” Plus, Diagneau adds, the school was rejected by the UW’s Office of Educational Opportunity, school district authorizers and technical college boards: “The other authorizers all declined.”

Under state law, the entities that can authorize independent charter schools are: Milwaukee’s common council, the chancellors of University of Wisconsin System schools, technical college district boards, the Waukesha county executive, the UW-System Office of Educational Opportunity and the state’s two Native American tribal colleges — the College of Menominee Nation and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College.

Independent charter schools are paid for by taxpayers, but operate outside the oversight of local school boards and with freedom from some rules regarding academic programs and operations that regular public schools must follow.

Expanding tribal college charters

Two Republican-sponsored bills now moving through the Wisconsin Legislature seek to expand the ability of tribal colleges to establish charter schools and increase the amount of money those schools can collect.

The bills’ authors present them as efforts to rectify historical discrimination against Native American people. “By removing this cap on First Nations, we are able to have parity of educational opportunity,” Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) said at a Dec. 14 Assembly education committee hearing on his bill to allow tribal colleges to authorize an unlimited number of charter schools, AB 721. The committee had already unanimously approved companion legislation, AB 420, that increases the reimbursement rate for charter schools authorized by tribal colleges from $8,719 per student to $9,165 — the same amount independent charters authorized by non-tribal entities collect.

(Historically, tribally authorized charter schools were reimbursed by the state at the same rate paid by the federal government to tribal schools established through the Bureau of Indian Affairs — a rate somewhat lower than the state’s charter reimbursement.)

Lake Country Classical Academy founder and board president Kristina Vourax appeared at the Dec. 14 hearing with James Schlender, a lawyer for the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College and the tribe’s attorney general, to give testimony on the school — only the second to be authorized by a tribal college in Wisconsin — and to speak in support of doing away with the cap of six schools tribal colleges are currently allowed to authorize.

There is particular synergy between the classical academy and the tribe, Vourax and Schlender said, because of their shared emphasis on values. “A lot of our virtues align with the seven sacred gifts that the Native Americans teach,” Vourax said, “and honesty and wisdom and truth and all these things were in alignment.”

Confusion about who the school serves

During the hearing, there was some confusion among members of the committee about the purpose of the Lake Country charter school and whom it serves.

The U.S. government has just shredded Ojibwe knowledge and indigenous knowledge. So for me, the big thing is educational sovereignty. Parents have the right to educate their kids the way they see fit.”

– Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe tribal member

“Are students other than tribal members in your school or is it just tribal members?” Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield) asked Schlender and Vourax. “We have a mixture of all backgrounds,” Vourax replied. In fact, Lake Country Classical Academy does not serve the children of tribal members, instead, enrollment data from the Department of Public Instruction shows, it draws its students from Oconomowoc and surrounding school districts.

The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College has authorized only one other charter school — a small, environmentally focused school-within-a-school serving 15 at-risk students inside the 284-student Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School, a public K-12 institution in Hayward accredited by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that serves students from the reservation and surrounding towns, with an emphasis on Ojibwe language and culture.

That school seems more like a few of the Native American charter schools in the Upper Peninsula that Miron visited when he was an evaluator for the Michigan state department of education. “They were really inspiring,” he says. “One was very ambitious and pursuing a Native American curriculum. They wanted tribal values communicated through all the subjects.”

But just because a tribal college is authorizing schools, that doesn’t mean the schools have to promote tribal values. As Schlender put it during the Assembly hearing, “We are an independent authorizer, that’s what we are. We just happen to be a college that is chartered and housed on a reservation. So there is no specific tribal requirement.”

“So am I right in saying or assuming that … this is just possibly an expansion of charter schools anywhere in the state, but authorized by the tribal entities?” Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) asked. “So if it’s not on tribal land, and it doesn’t require tribal members for attendance, then we’re just talking more charter schools, right?”

“Our purpose isn’t to advance a tribal mission,” Schlender confirmed. “Our purpose is to advance the ideas of what education is about.”

Asked what the tribal college looks for in authorizing a school, Schlender said, “You’re not carrying our colors, you’re not carrying our language. You’re just carrying forward this idea of teaching your children to be successful and that’s what we want. That’s the mission.”

‘Not a money-making scheme’

There is also money involved. The tribal college received an implementation grant for the school from the state in June of $750,625. In addition, under the contract between the tribal college and the charter school, the tribal college receives 3% of all the per-pupil revenue the state directs to the school to cover the costs of providing oversight.

“It’s not — I don’t know how this translates in English — a money-making scheme. It’s not for that,” Schlender said in his testimony before the Assembly education committee. “This is about the future generations that we have as citizens … as responsible neighbors, we want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity for that education.”

Miron, who has studied the growth of charter schools across the nation, points to charter schools in his state, where authorizers receive 3% of per-pupil school aid to pay for administrative, chartering and monitoring responsibilities, but don’t necessarily spend a lot of time on oversight.

“It had nothing to do with their community or their values,” Miron says. “It was about the 3%.” Especially with cuts to higher education, authorizing charter schools has become an important source of revenue for both tribal and nontribal colleges and universities.

Bay Mills Community College, a tribally-controlled college on the southeastern shore of Lake Superior, became one of the top three charter school authorizers in Michigan after the state allowed tribal colleges to start authorizing charter schools in 2000. The college now has 46 charter schools; 48% of the students are African American, many living 5½ hours away in Detroit.

What makes a great education?

The focus of the Hillsdale 1776 American history curriculum, which is downloadable for free on the Hillsdale College website, appears to be impressing upon students the greatness of America. In a section titled “What Teachers Should Consider,” it states: “The teacher might best open the unit with lessons aimed at understanding why the colonists declared independence in the first place. It was not to avoid paying taxes or about wanting to preserve slavery. (These are misconceptions at best, distortions at worst.) It was to choose — between liberty under self-government and servitude under tyranny.”

Every class using Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative curriculum, to which Lake Country Classical Academy subscribes, “is taught with an emphasis on the history and traditions of American citizens as the inheritors of Western civilization.”

As for the touchy issues of slavery and genocide, teachers are urged to put those parts of American history in a positive light with questions for students including: “Even though many wanted to abolish slavery, why did many leading Founders think that permitting slavery and keeping the Americans united would be the only way to eventually get rid of slavery?” and “How did the Founders restrict slavery at the founding more than it had ever been before?”

Native Americans appear to be almost entirely absent from the early history units on “The American Founding” for grades K-2 and 3-5, apart from a lesson plan on “Self-Government or Tyranny” that instructs teachers to “Have students consider a few problems the British in North America faced following the French and Indian War … namely, the risk of further conflict (and associated costs) with Native Americans as colonists moved westward, and the money they owed after the late war.”

Vourax has said that Lake Country Classical Academy plans to add extra lessons on the history of the Lac Courte Oreilles to supplement the Hillsdale American history curriculum. “We’re able to not only just learn about this in a textbook, but reach out to the LCO and bring the speakers down and bring our kids up there and really learn their story first-hand,” she told legislators.

But none of that is required by the school’s charter. “As long as you’re teaching your children to be productive people, that’s what we want,” Schlender said. “That’s the idea of educational sovereignty — that’s the principle to it. We don’t make them do things; we don’t require things; we don’t imply things; we make ourselves available if they have questions about different things.”

Asked if Hillsdale’s sunny view of colonization and the superiority of Western European traditions came up in discussions of authorizing the school, Schlender told Wisconsin Examiner, “It did come up. But that’s a question for the school.”

How does the tribal college square its values of lifting up Native American people and their history with Hillsdale’s curriculum, which explicitly seeks to downplay the bad parts of U.S. history, including slavery and the Native American genocide? “What do you mean square it?” Schlender asked. “The school is responsible for what they teach.”

A member of the tribe who was involved in the charter school discussions but did not want to speak about them on the record explained, “I would never send my kids there, because my value system is different. But that doesn’t mean we have the right to impose our will on them. … The U.S. government has just shredded Ojibwe knowledge and indigenous knowledge. So for me, the big thing is educational sovereignty. Parents have the right to educate their kids the way they see fit.”

‘Separate historical trajectories meeting at a very odd place’

Lake Country Classical Academy is “a very curious case study,” says UW professor and Native American education historian Matt Villenueve. Villeneuve has done a lot of research on the way charter schools became important to Native nations, especially in places where there were no treaties that made it easy for indigenous people to contract with the federal government to open schools.

“Among non-Natives, there’s a lot of suspicion around charter schools that has to do with how they avoid oversight and direct public resources into private hands. And we know that’s true in a lot of cases,” Villeneuve says. “But in Indian Country, it’s often more complicated.”

In the case of the Lake Country Classical Academy, Villeneuve sees “two very separate historical trajectories meeting in a very odd place.”

One of those trends is the rise of charter schools as a solution for parents who feel that they don’t have enough control over their local public schools. “In the 1970s, that grew out of resistance to busing and integration,” Villeneuve says. “And at the same time Native American people were asserting their sovereignty. One way people exercise sovereignty is through schools.”

Increasingly people on the right see this argument about sovereignty and say, ‘Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?’ It’s not.

– Matt Villeneuve, UW-Madison

The federal government has historically undermined Native sovereignty by seeking to control Native schooling – “hence a Native eagerness for charter schools as a vehicle to control the education of their young people,” says Villeneuve.

“During a period from the 1880s to the 1930s, the federal government would often overrule Native parents, drag Native children off of reservations, and coercively enroll them in boarding schools,” he says. “This was a deliberate attempt by the federal government to use federal schools to disrupt the passing of important cultural, linguistic, and experiential knowledge from elders to children that was critical to the future of Native communities.”

But “increasingly people on the right see this argument about sovereignty and say, ‘Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?’ It’s not.”

He calls the strategic appropriation of the Native American legal concept of sovereignty by right-wing enemies of the federal government “incredibly uncomfortable.”

Charter schools make sense for Native American people in the context of a long history of resistance to the federal government, especially when it comes to education, Villeneuve says. But the Hillsdale charter, in his view, represents “a curious convergence.”

“Non-Native advocates of charters as a market-based carve-out from the public school system may believe they have allies in some Native nations, which have used charters as a means of asserting their educational sovereignty,” Villeneuve says. “Both rely on exceptions to state and federal power over schools to make the case for local community empowerment. Of course, only one of these groups has historically experienced the imposition of schools by the federal government as a means of colonization.”

Parity, discrimination, and the growth of independent charters

The last speaker at the Dec. 14 Assembly education committee hearing was the Menominee tribe’s lobbyist, Joseph Strohl, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader in Wisconsin.

Strohl said the Menominee College has not authorized any charter schools, because so far it has not been interested in “going through the red tape you have to go through to become an authorizer.”

Recently, when the tribe decided to create a Menominee language immersion school, it went to the local school board. “And so it looks like the Menominee tribe will get its immersion school, but the charter will be granted by the Menominee public school district,” Strohl said.

He did have a recommendation for a “minor amendment” to the bill to expand tribal charters, and referred lawmakers to Act 31, a collection of state statutes that require all public school districts to provide instruction on the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s 11 federally-recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities.

“If the tribal colleges are going to be authorizing charters to schools that are probably primarily not for Indian children, there should be some education in them that should follow the Act 31 requirements,” Strohl said.

Following the money that follows the students

During the hearing, Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R-Campbellsport), requested a fiscal analysis of the impact the charter school expansion would have on local school districts. Steffen, the author of the bill, assured him the impact would be negligible.

Education committee chair Jermey Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) jumped in to say, “I think the impact is less money is likely going to be spent, because independent charters receive … a lesser amount per student.”

That’s a familiar talking point for proponents of school choice programs, who argue that regular public schools spend more money per student in general than voucher and charter schools.

“There’s this idea that the parental choice or charter school model saves taxpayers money. That’s completely false,” says Kettle Moraine School District business manager John Stellmacher. “It’s true they get less money, but they are also largely not providing special ed or transportation.”

The higher costs of providing programs to kids with special needs, English language learners, special education, and, for a district such as Kettle Moraine, long bus rides among far-flung schools, remain fixed for regular public schools, even if schools that don’t have those expenses spend less per student. This is a particularly sore point this year, as the current state budget brought state funding for schools to a historic low despite much larger than expected revenue.

“Our state taxpayers are now financing two systems. There are more options, but there is also more cost. It’s prohibitive to serve kids because you don’t have those economies of scale.”

– Kettle Moraine school district business manager John Stellmacher

Kettle Moraine, situated one mile from the Lake Country Classical Academy’s Holy Trinity campus, just over the district line from Oconomowoc, felt the impact of the new tribal charter school in a big way this year, Stellmacher says, after 111 students left the district to go there. Stellmacher remembers getting the report on Oct. 15, when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released the numbers of students heading out of district to independent charters, taking their per-pupil funding with them.

Kettle Moraine took a $1.5 million budget hit this year to pay for 118 students who went to independent charters. State education department data shows that 111 of them went to one of the state’s tribally authorized independent charter schools (almost certainly Lake Country Classical Academy; the only other tribally authorized charter is the 15-student Ojibwe school-within-a-school five hours north in Hayward). “Our operational budget is about $50 million,” Stellmacher says, “and having a budget swing of about 3% a week or so before you set your final numbers definitely causes a little heartburn.”

When he got the news, Stellmacher scanned the other Waukesha County schools on the list and noticed that they, like Kettle Moraine, went from zero students leaving the district for independent charters to significant numbers right after Lake Country Classical Academy opened.

According to DPI data, 364 students from Waukesha County school districts now attend a tribal charter, including 96 students from Oconomowoc, 61 from Waukesha, and 31 from Elmbrook.

The way Stellmacher sees it, “Every time you add more choices for parents, that’s good, I guess, but it also undermines the economies of scale of the public school system.”

Pulling out a few students from several classrooms doesn’t reduce costs, he explains, because each class still needs a teacher, but it reduces the total amount of money available to educate those students.

Over the next few years, the fiscal impact on surrounding districts of a single independent charter school opening will be mitigated by the complex state equalization formula that seeks to even out money among districts. But in the long run, Stellmacher says, “Our state taxpayers are now financing two systems. There are more options, but there is also more cost. It’s prohibitive to serve kids because you don’t have those economies of scale.”

As charter authorizers and new charter schools proliferate, “We’ve created all these strange barriers and back doors that make it easy to manipulate the system for financial gain, or to push a political agenda, which I believe the 1776 curriculum clearly does,” says Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

She does not oppose putting more resources into charter schools that serve Native American students, and would embrace allocating additional funds to them, she says, “but to children who need those investments who will directly benefit from it — not, in this case, children who live nowhere near the reservation, have no connection whatsoever, and whose schools do not even intend to provide a rigorous education in that area as a subject.”

“Buyer beware,” she adds. “I just hope people know what they are getting into when they sign up for these schools, and how they divert money from the rest of the community.”

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