By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming’s top elected officials approved a change Wednesday to the rules of a state board that could soon allow the creation of two new Wyoming charter schools focused on classical education.
The State Lands and Investment Board, made up of the state’s top five elected officials, adopted the rule change needed to create the charter schools without local school board involvement.
On Friday, the SLIB will begin accepting applications from proposed schools such as the Wyoming Classical Academy in Casper and the Cheyenne Classical Academy in Cheyenne.
If approved, the schools will be free and publicly funded just like normal state schools, but will educate students with more emphasis on the philosophy and civics underpinning Western civilization.
Inspired By Riots
For Russell Donley, chairman of the Casper school’s board of trustees, the idea for a new charter school started with the 2020 riots nationwide.
“I was watching the beautiful young people marching to change America into a socialistic country, and that type of thing, back in 2020,” Donley told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “And I thought, that’s what’s wrong, it’s just education: people just don’t understand what a great country this is and how it should be, and what was intended by our founders.”
The Cheyenne and Casper schools are independent of one another and have separate nonprofit organization filings and boards, but both have been approved under the Barney Charter School Initiative, a curriculum and outreach program by Hillsdale College, which is a Christian, classical liberal arts institution.
The two Wyoming schools were among just seven public charter schools approved this year under Hillsdale’s umbrella.
‘The Great Works’
State Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, is the founding board member and attorney for the proposed Cheyenne Classical Academy. And he’s very excited about the prospect of opening the charter school, he told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday.
“Classics education spends time making sure we emphasize a proper understanding of (the Western civilization) government, where it came from, what it looked like in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and continues to study some of the great works that came out of that time,” said Olsen, noting that the other subjects such as arithmetic and art will be taught as well, all through a lens of understanding Western heritage.
Olsen graduated from Evanston High School and his wife is a public school teacher. He emphasized that he had nothing bad to say about Wyoming’s existing schools’ curricula.
But he also said that throughout the nation and Wyoming, he has been noting a decline in civics understanding that could be remedied with a focused educational effort. Specifically, he said, it would benefit society to spend more time on civics and their historical and philosophical drivers, and to spark children’s interest in those themes.
“Being able to participate in your government is a unique function in politics,” said Olsen, adding that people should cherish and fully understand the privilege. “Throughout the history of our world, it’s not a predominant form of government.”
A pillar in the classical curriculum known as the Trivium explores grammar, logic and rhetoric.
Donley said the Hillsdale curriculum also includes Singapore math — a math curriculum originating in Singapore public schools — and an exploration of the United States’ founding and contributing documents — such as the Federalist Papers — and American and world history.
“It’s just a really good classical education all the way through. We’re really excited about it,” said Donley.
The SLIB, which consists of Gov. Mark Gordon, Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder, Auditor Kristi Racines, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and Treasurer Curt Meier, met Wednesday to review the new law allowing them to approve public charter schools. The board had to adopt rules to let it do what the law, which took effect on July 1, directed it to do.
Before the 2021 passage of the law, which was sponsored by Senate Floor Majority Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, people proposing charter schools had to be established by their local school boards, even though they would have to compete against those very school boards for state funding.
It was Donley who in 2020 approached legislators, including Driskill and Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, about crafting legislation making it easier for public charter schools to get started in Wyoming. Scott is now vice chair of the board for the proposed Casper school.
There was a natural imbalance in the old process, according to Nathan Winters, board chair for the Cheyenne charter school.
“It was almost like the chicken having to go to the fox to ask for its right to live,” said Winters.
Winters estimated that the charter schools will operate at about 80% of the typical cost of a Wyoming school.
The SLIB is scheduled to begin accepting applications this Friday.
Olsen said that for the Cheyenne school, he expects to submit the 140-page application Friday.
Donley said he’ll be submitting the Casper school’s application early next week.
Both schools aim to become K-12 schools eventually, though they plan to open only to the lower grades initially while expanding facility capacities and staff. If approved, both schools would open August 2023.