The Mixon Town neighborhood is getting a new charter school: the Jacksonville Classical Academy. The charter’s public face is Chairman John Rood, the Vestcor real estate developer who twice recently appeared with Gov. Ron DeSantis to raise his profile. But JCA is actually part of the Optima Foundation network of schools, founded by Erika Donalds, a former Collier County School Board member who is married to Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, who routinely votes to expand charter schools in Florida.
Erika holds rather extreme views on books, science and LGBTQ people. She is involved with the Florida Conservative Alliance, which has sought to ban books by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Toni Morrison and Frank McCourt and pushed for the teaching of science that is a lot closer to creationism than climate change. She pushes anti-LGBTQ views in her Twitter feed and in her professional life. As a school board member, she suggested that her district remove sexual orientation and gender identity from CCPS’ access to equal educational opportunity policy, angering many in the LGBTQ community.
If that wasn’t damning enough, the JCA curriculum was developed in partnership with the far-right Hillsdale College, a small Michigan college that was described in a New York Times headline as “a ‘Shining City on a Hill’ for Conservatives.” Hillsdale is known for, among other things, refusing government money such as Pell Grants because of the strings attached, namely Title IX guidelines on sex discrimination.
It’s not a surprise that Erika finds Hillsdale so appealing. When the decision was made to legalize same-sex marriage, the college called for all staff and students to pray for the Supreme Court. “Just to give you a heads up, ugly things are happening in the Supreme Court right now,” read an email statement. “Justice Anthony Kennedy is seen as the ‘swing vote’ and, if that is the case, he will have the power to legalize same-sex marriage NATIONWIDE! Yeah ... I do not even think we can imagine the effects this could have on our nation, the church and families.” (To be fair, it was reported some Hillsdale staff were disappointed in the collegewide email.)
Hillsdale College’s far-right agenda is troubling; Erika’s book-banning and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric are more so; but what is perhaps most troubling is that Rood is looking to partner with either of them—let alone both. Neither represent the spirit of a classical education, which according to JCA’s website, aims to teach students to communicate effectively, be virtuous, possess cultural literacy, and become active and productive members of American society. The Hillsdale curriculum and Erika’s catechism will only produce straight, conservative members of society.
I asked local Brooklyn expert and FSCJ English professor Tim Gilmore and David Withun, JCA’s head of school, for comment. Gilmore replied, “What’s most upsetting about this supposed ‘classical’ approach to education might just be how mockingly insidious it is. It ties itself to E.D. Hirsch’s idea of ‘cultural literacy,’ which addresses the very real frustrations of concerned parents and educators—that kids graduate high school without knowing basic things everyone should know. Like all forms of conservatism, the new ‘classical’ approach creates something new under the guise of returning to something that worked better in the old days. It’s not so much ‘classical,’ in historically amorphous term anyway, as it is anti-multicultural.”
This “classical” approach is connected to the CCE Movement, or Classical Christian Education. Most affiliated charters, however, leave out the word “Christian,” since public life (and by extension public education) is free of religious coercion per the Constitution of the United States of America. So “classical” here means within the group’s perceived lines of “Judeo-Christian heritage.” If black writers make their way into the curriculum, it won’t be ones who’ve challenged the system much. What would such a program do with Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates? And what will it do in the face of America’s ballooning diversity? Re-entrench. Create a new system that pretends to return to an old one as a panacea for fixing what’s wrong with public education today, when what it really does is deflect from causes and mock those who earnestly seek to address the causes directly.
At the time of writing, Withun hadn’t replied other than extending an invitation to come to a parent presentation to see what the school was all about.