Ascent Classical Academy is a proposed charter school within the Boulder Valley School District. The district rejected Ascent’s application on January 22. The Colorado Board of Education will hear and vote on Ascent’s appeal on February 14 (2:00 pm).
Regardless of what one might conclude about the details of Ascent’s application, abundantly obvious is that that certain actors are biased against Ascent because of its ties to conservative Christians. The dispute over Ascent is fundamentally about ideology.
The bias against Ascent is evident, among many other places, in a parenthetical note in a February 2 Daily Camera editorial penned by Quentin Young. Young writes, “The name Ascent is an apparent allusion to Jesus’ ascension.”
Young’s claim is a complete fabrication, the effect of which is to make those involved with Ascent out to be some sort of religious nutjobs.
I asked the people who came up with the name what it actually means. Derec Shuler heads Ascent and also helped open Golden View Classical Academy in Jefferson County. Shuler said:
The “Ascent” claim is just silly. Robert Garrow, Principal of Golden View, and I were brainstorming names for this initiative. He came up with Ascent because we want our children to aspire toward being better people and flourishing, or ascending. Jesus’s “ascension” has never crossed our minds and is a far-fetched claim given the Daily Camera never asked us about the word.
I also checked in with Garrow, who said:
The name “Ascent” comes from Plato’s “Republic,” where Socrates explains that education is like an ascent from the cave of darkened opinion to the brilliant light of true knowledge. Add to that that we live in Colorado where many of us enjoy climbing and hiking, and the name is not only a comment on the permanent human condition but on our local situation as well. The claim that Ascent comes from Jesus’s ascension is preposterous.
I figured that Young might wish to correct his ridiculous claim. I emailed him, “In a recent editorial for the Camera, you write, ‘The name Ascent is an apparent allusion to Jesus’ ascension.’ Both of the people who came up with the name, Derec Shuler and Robert Garrow, deny that the name has anything to do with Jesus’s ascension. Would you care to comment about this?”
Young replied, “Hi Ari. I’ll let the editorial speak for itself.”
Young seems to be confused about the proper use of the term “apparent.” When we sensibly claim that something is “apparently” the case, the term means that we have good initial evidence that it is the case, only the evidence is not definitive, and further investigation could cast doubt on initial appearances.
The term “apparent” does not mean, as Young seems to think, that we can just Make Stuff Up, including the wildest and silliest of claims, without any evidence whatsoever.
Religion and Public Schools
A January 22 Camera article by Amy Bounds describes a concern of Superintendent Rob Anderson as Ascent’s “teaching about religion.” I have a hard time understanding this concern. A tax-funded public school in Colorado legally may not and practically could not get away with promoting religious doctrine.
At the same time, a classical education emphasizes Greek and Roman history, which obviously became intertwined with Christianity. A school that does not teach students about the historical importance of religion simply is not a serious school.
Here is how Garrow put the point:
I don’t know how many ways we can say it—we don’t teach religion. To do so would be against the law. However, we do teach about religion as a central phenomenon in history and as literature. This means we do have students read parts of religious texts, because that is the only way that they can come to see the religion in its own terms. But to call that “teaching religion” is simply incorrect and misinformed.
It is true that many conservative Christians happen to be interested in a classical education. It is equally true that many people who are not conservative Christians are interested in a classical education. A classical education covers Pagan Greek and Roman culture as well as the Christianization of Rome. It also covers world and American history, math, science, literature, and every other main academic subject.
There is nothing inherently religious about a classical education.
The separation of church and state does not mean that religious people may not be involved in government, including government schools. It means (in part) that government may neither favor not disfavor people based on their religion. It is not Ascent that is stepping over this wall—it is Boulder Valley School District.
Bounds’s article notes concerns about Ascent’s anti-discrimination policies: “Several board members said they didn’t vote no to deny parents a classical education option. Instead, they said, their concerns included governance, transparency and a non-discrimination policy that doesn’t include gender identity and expression.” The claim is misleading.
Schools are bound by state anti-discrimination law. Golden View’s policies state, “Enrollment will take place without regard to race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, ancestry, disability, or need for special education services.”
What about Ascent? A January 4, 2019, memo from the District Accountability Committee to the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education discusses the school’s proposed discrimination policy. The memo counts the policy as among the application’s “Strengths,” summarizing, “The application details the enrollment process, including the school’s proposed lottery system, priority system, and commitment to enrolling students regardless of race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, ancestry, disability or need for special education services.”
The reference to “sexual orientation” has broad implications. A document on transgender students from the Colorado Department of Education states:
Colorado follows state anti-discrimination and civil rights laws and guidance. In 2008, Colorado passed a law (S.B. 08-200) expanding prohibitions against discrimination. The law calls out the need to protect all regardless of “disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry” in all places of public accommodation. This law defines sexual orientation as “a person’s orientation toward heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality or transgender status or another person’s perception thereof.”
Claims that Ascent would discriminate against non-heterosexual students are spurious.
The real question is whether the Boulder Valley School District is committed to not discriminating against certain people on the basis of their religious beliefs.
One of Young’s main concerns is that Ascent has ties to Hillsdale College, a private Christian college that promotes classical education. By Young’s account, this tie explains why Golden View promoted abstinence-focused and heterosexual-oriented sex education.
Young writes about Golden View:
The Colorado Independent reported that the school’s family handbook states that “sexual intercourse will only be discussed in the context of a monogamous relationship between two people of opposite sexes,” and that abstinence is the only “100 percent safe approach to sex.” Condoms would be discussed “only with respect to their limited effectiveness in prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.” As the Independent reported, this all appears to contravene state sex education law, which requires lessons on contraception and for the material to be meaningful for gay and transgender, as well as straight, students.
Young leaves out important context. The article that he cites is from May 1, 2016, and it does not reflect changes to Golden View’s policies.
Golden View’s Family Handbook, dated November 1, 2018, notes that the sex-ed policies were amended on October 26, 2016. (Marianne Goodland also points this out.) True, the policies still endorse abstinence prior to marriage and sex in the context of “marital commitment and fidelity.” The policies also still focus on the limited effectiveness of condoms. But the policies do not specify that a marriage should be a heterosexual one.
Broader concerns about sex ed are probably moot, as the Democratic legislature is keen to more tightly regulate sex ed in schools.
Maybe People Should Learn History
Another complaint about Ascent is that it allegedly would be unfriendly to minority students.
Following is perhaps the oddest line in Bounds’s article: “[A parent] said she is concerned the school’s classical curriculum doesn’t represent Latino students, including her daughter. ‘That’s not her heritage, that’s not her roots,’ she said. ‘What’s her place there? She’s going to be silenced.’” Bounds leaves this remark hanging.
So let me get this straight. Students who self-identify as Latino, and who may speak a Romance language such as Spanish, have no connection to the heritage of the Latin language and the Roman culture, which the classical model emphasizes.
As for the claim that Latino students (or any students) would be “silenced” at Ascent, that’s just a groundless smear.
I need to issue a disclosure. My son will enter Kindergarten next Fall (2020—how time flies). My wife and I are considering sending him to Golden View or to Ascent (if it opens). Enrollment at an alternative school depends on available slots and a lottery system. We attended early community meetings hosted by Ascent. We’re also looking at other schools.
I have known Ascent’s Derec Shuler for years, and I find him to be an extraordinarily impressive individual. (He recently discussed classical schools with Jon Caldara.) I’ve gone to an event at Golden View, where I wandered the halls to observe the displayed artwork and student work.
I have also visited the (unrelated) classical schools in Fort Collins (Ridgeview) and in Grand Junction (Caprock, where a relative of mine works). Generally, I am impressed by the classical model (despite some reservations) and with Golden View in particular. So, yes, I have an interest in what happens to Ascent.
I am also an atheist. Am I thrilled about Ascent’s ties to Hillsdale? No. (You don’t have to search very hard to find some odd things about Hillsdale’s past.) Yet both of these things are true: Hillsdale is a Christian college, and those involved in classical education are serious about children receiving a great nonsectarian education. A classical education is compatible with being a conservative Christian, and it is also compatible with being a secular atheist or an adherent of some other worldview.
Do I think that Golden view has the best approach to sex ed? No. But neither does its approach especially bother me. Sex-ed is a minuscule part of the curriculum. My attitude is that it is my responsibility as a parent to provide a good sex education to my child, as appropriate. I think that parents who leave such matters up to their children’s schools are not doing their job as parents. I don’t approve of the conservative Christian approach to sex ed, but neither do I approve of the typical Progressive approach.
I suspect that Golden View appeals disproportionately to conservative Christians and that Ascent would also. But so what? What exactly is wrong with parents seeking schools that work best for their families?
Conservative Christians pay taxes too, as do atheists who are as wary of Progressives as they are of conservative Christians, as do people of various ideological stripes who are drawn to the strong academics of the classical approach. Where’s our choice? Where’s our school?
Young suggests that we consider a “private model.” In other words, we get to keep paying taxes to finance the Progressive-dominated schools for other people’s children, plus we get to pay many thousands more to finance schools for our own children. How exactly is that fair?
(I am happy to have a deeper conversation about the structure and financing of schools on another day. Here I am commenting within the context of existing law and available schools.)
A note about geography: I live at the northern edge of Jefferson County; from my back (north-facing) window I can also see into Boulder and Broomfield counties. I understand that there are oddities about school finance involving the interplay of local and state taxes. I didn’t make the rules, and I didn’t draw the arbitrary boundary lines. I’d have a far easier time sending my child to Ascent than driving him down I-70 to Golden View. I feel like the current system marginalizes people like me who live on the “wrong” side of boundary lines. Such concerns help explain why Shuler is pressing for state authorization through the Charter School Institute.
Regardless, plenty of parents within Boulder County also would like the opportunity to send their children to Ascent, and district-chartered schools already allow people from out of district to attend, depending on available slots.
What appeals to me about a “classical” education is that it is a real education. The focus is on solid academics.
What those of us interested in classical education want, simply, is the best education for our children.
Shuler sent me another set of remarks, along with a letter from Hillsdale, which I publish here:
If our schools discriminated or Hillsdale required Christian indoctrination, I would be the first to demand the relationship be severed or the school shut down. On the contrary, while BVSD continues saying we’ve refused to address their concerns, we reached out to Hillsdale and the Barney Charter School Initiative (BCSI). The Director of the BCSI is adamant that all the public schools it works with will absolutely follow the law on discrimination and teaching religion. He also provided me a letter we presented to BVSD. He’s also agreed to include more explicit language with this expectation in the MOU between Hillsdale and the charter schools they work with.
The argument we should go open a private school is disturbing. These are they same people demanding we provide access to all kids in the community as a charter school. However, they’re also quick to demand this school be inaccessible to families who can’t pay private school tuition. I’m not sure they realize the irony of their solution. This is a great model that can serve a wide range of needs with a strong academic program and culture. My kids love it, and so do many of our other children.