How NC charter school with GOP backers, ‘classical’ education could skip state approvals

A charter school with Republican political ties and a focus on a “classical” education could circumvent traditional state approvals and open in a few months if approved by state lawmakers.

Trinitas Academy is the only school that meets five detailed conditions lodged in a provision of a 271-page state budget introduced this week allowing an unnamed charter school to expedite its opening.

The five criteria include: a 2024 application, in a county projected to grow at least 25% between 2020 and 2030, in the state’s largest metropolitan area that the county’s public school district has enrollment under 25,000 students and occupancy in a pre-existing, fully furnished school facility purchased from a local school board.

The tuition-free K-8 charter school, located in the old Mt. Mourne School building in Mooresville, hasn’t started the standard state review process – and may never need to. The property was acquired by a Dallas-based investment firm in 2022 from Iredell-Statesville Schools. The charter school then submitted its proposal during the state’s 2024 application period that ended in April.

Forgoing the state review is raising concerns from some educators.

“It’s outrageous and irresponsible to bypass the review process in order to please an apparent political objective,” Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education Foundation, told The Charlotte Observer. “The point of the review is to make sure the school can survive. This is a serious taxpayer investment and there needs to be oversight.”

The typical review process is rigorous. The Charter Schools Review Board, comprised largely of charter school operators, meticulously examine budgets, curriculum, staffing, and market data. Their goal is to ensure responsible use of public funds from state, local, and federal sources. This evaluation usually takes a year, followed by an additional year of support before schools can open their doors.

Charter schools are public schools with free tuition and open enrollment and get government funding. They have more freedom to pick curriculum and teaching practices as they please. Private schools charge tuition, pick their students and are independent from the state.

It’s not clear whether the five paragraphs fast-tracking Trinitas’ opening will make it into the final budget. The provisions letting it bypass state review are contained in the House’s budget, which is at odds with spending levels in the Senate’s budget.

Part of page 84 of the 271-page North Carolina House budget bill.
Part of page 84 of the 271-page North Carolina House budget bill.

Powerful backers

While it’s unclear how Trinitas got a special provision in the state budget, first reported by WFAE, the school has a host of powerful backers on its board including:

  • Will Bowen, communications director for Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry.

  • Marcus Long, a retired chief circuit judge from Virginia.

  • Mark Lockman, described on the charter school’s website as someone who was in district leadership at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Iredell-Statesville Schools.

  • Joe Higgins, CEO of a classical education charter school group in Colorado and Arizona and helped expedite Trinitas’ opening.

  • Susan Tillis, the wife of Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, was also listed on Trinitas’s board but was removed Wednesday and replaced by Higgins. She was described as having “an extensive background in state and national politics.”

Bowen, Lockman, Higgins and Tillis did not did not respond to requests for comment. The Observer’s attempts to contact Long were unsuccessful.

When WFAE asked a co-chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee, John Torbett of Gaston County, he said Trinitas “was news to me.”

He said he doesn’t know who proposed the bill: “I have no idea. I saw it today, when the bill came out.”

Trinitas charter school teaching plans

The man who helped Trinitas get an exception in the budget is Higgins, according to WFAE. He’s now a listed board member and has operated a number of other classical schools. In a March interview, on radio station WSIC’s “Good Morning LKN” he said he helped file this year’s application for Trinitas.

Higgins said in the radio interview the No. 1 question parents are asking is “is it woke?”.

In interviews Higgins often criticizes public schools, labeling them as bureaucratic and not teaching students the right things. In past writings online, he claimed without evidence the Clinton Foundation is engaged in money-laundering.

“Post-COVID a lot of parents got to see what’s going on in classrooms and kind of realized ‘I need to get my kids out of that environment’ into one that matches their faith, belief system, security or whatever you want to call it,” he said in the radio interview.

That’s where Trinitas’ classical education comes in. “Trinitas” means “three in one,” in Latin — that’s a reference to the Holy Trinity.

Its curriculum focuses on “great books,” including Robin Hood, 1984 and Huckleberry Finn, traditional values and the foundations of western civilization, usually starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Teaching methods focus on socratic seminars and helping students learn “how to learn” and not “what to learn,” according to Trinitas’ website.

“We set up a history foundation in the past. We want you to know the great classics of Greek and Rome and the foundation of this county,” Higgins said in the radio interview. “We stop our history instruction at 9/11.”

Trinitas’ curriculum is also going to be available for home-school students.

“We are doing full public charter but then dedicating space inside campus for the homeschool community,” Higgins said in the radio interview. “The curriculum will match what’s being taught in the classroom.”

‘Groom the next generation of conservatives’

Classical education is historically popular among religious and prep schools, but has become a buzzword for school choice activists since the pandemic with new schools popping up across the country, usually run by religious conservatives.

Classical learning involves chronologically studying literature, philosophy, history, and science from the ancient Greeks and Romans through the Enlightenment period. Teachers are tasked with cultivating moral character and effective communication skills by teaching students strong grammar, logic, and rhetoric skills.

It’s estimated that there are around 1,000 classical schools in operation today.

Republican politicians have also embraced classical education, billing it as an antidote to “woke” public schools. For instance, Mark Robinson, North Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, has called on public schools to “remove agendas from the classroom” and said “classical education” should be restored.

However, critics argue classical education places too much emphasis on biblical passages and traditional western thought, and that students read books to shape their opinions toward traditionally conservative ideas, including on race, gay rights and inclusivity.

“A lot of these classical schools are a part of an attempt to groom the next generation of conservatives so that children leave the school with the mindset that will encourage them to vote conservative when they get old enough,” Burris said.

Trinitas, which would receive taxpayer money for its operation, is one of those schools, she says.