On Thursday, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that the principal of a local charter school, the Tallahassee Classical School, was forced to resign after three parents complained about an art teacher showing a picture of Michelangelo’s 16th-century sculpture of David. “Parental rights are supreme, and that means protecting the interests of all parents, whether it’s one, 10, 20 or 50,” the chair of the school’s board, Barney Bishop III, told the paper. To figure out exactly how this happened, I called Bishop, who is also, according to his biography, a consultant, a lobbyist, an “outspoken advocate for the free enterprise system,” and an Eagle Scout. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Dan Kois: Why did the board make the decision to remove the principal of the school?
Barney Bishop III: Well, like all the reporters I’ve talked to today, the premise that you’re operating from is incorrect. We didn’t remove her. She resigned. She’s an at-will employee by contract, as are all our teachers. I went to her last week and offered her two letters. One was a voluntary resignation, and another a letter that said if she decided not to resign, I was going to ask the board to terminate her without cause. Without cause. We have the right to do that under the contract.
So it’s safe to say she resigned under pressure from the board.
So why did the board make that decision?
As I said in the Tallahassee Democrat, based on counsel from our employment lawyer, I’m not going to get into the reasons. But this wasn’t about that one issue. That’s not the entire truth, and she knows it. The fact is, I have been working with her since she became principal, and I have supported her as principal. But as I saw how things were going, how decisions were being made, I made the decision this was the best thing for the school.
You’re saying this wasn’t about an art teacher showing Michelangelo’s David.
We didn’t even discuss that issue at the special board meeting on Monday morning.
So the statue wasn’t part of the reason the board forced her to resign?
That was an issue, along with many others. Look, she wasn’t surprised. She knew what was the purpose of our meeting. She had two questions: Have you talked to the whole board, and how long do I have to decide between the two letters? The meeting was five minutes long. It wasn’t like “Oh, my God! You don’t want me at the school anymore?”
I think in this situation, some boards would say: We’re going to stand by the principal, the trained educator, as opposed to a handful of parents who have an issue. Why did you not go this way?
What issue do you believe people had?
That the statue was pornographic.
You’re operating from the wrong premise. The teacher mentioned that this was a nonpornographic picture, No. 1. The teacher said, “Don’t tell your parents,” No. 2. So the issue, Dan, isn’t whether children should see these pictures or not. Gosh, we’re a classical school. Why wouldn’t we show Renaissance art to children?
Yes, I had a question about that.
Did parents know in advance what children were going to see and hear and learn? Dan, 98 percent of the parents didn’t have a problem with it. But that doesn’t matter, because we didn’t follow a practice. We have a practice. Last year, the school sent out an advance notice about it. Parents should know: In class, students are going to see or hear or talk about this. This year, we didn’t send out that notice.
Just to be clear, last year you sent a notice to parents warning them that students were going to see Michelangelo’s David?
Yes. This year, we made an egregious mistake. We didn’t send that notice. Look, we’re not a public school. We’re a public charter. Parents, after they saw all the crap that’s being taught in public schools during COVID, decided of their own that they didn’t want their children to be taught that. Here we teach the Hillsdale Curriculum, focusing on civic and moral values. We teach a traditional, Western civilization, liberal classical education. And if there’s controversial topics or subjects, we tell parents in advance. We’re going to be sensitive to everybody at the school.
I tend to think of a classical education as being the mode in the 17th, 18th century, where you study the Greeks and Romans, and Western civilization is central. A tutor or teacher is the expert, and that teacher drives the curriculum. You’re describing something where it seems the parents drive the curriculum. How does your classical education differ from the classical education as I think of it?
What kind of question is that, Dan? I don’t know how they taught in the 17th, 18th century, and neither do you. You live in New York?
You’ve got a 212 number. That’s New York.
I lived in New York when I got the cellphone, many years ago. Now I live in Virginia.
Well, we’re Florida, OK? Parents will decide. Parents are the ones who are going to drive the education system here in Florida. The governor said that, and we’re with the governor. Parents don’t decide what is taught. But parents know what that curriculum is. And parents are entitled to know anytime their child is being taught a controversial topic and picture.
Parents choose this school because they want a certain kind of education. We’re not gonna have courses from the College Board. We’re not gonna teach 1619 or CRT crap. I know they do all that up in Virginia. The rights of parents, that trumps the rights of kids. Teachers are the experts? Teachers have all the knowledge? Are you kidding me? I know lots of teachers that are very good, but to suggest they are the authorities, you’re on better drugs than me.
How would the teachers at your school feel to hear you say they are not authorities?
Do you know what classical education is?
I know it in a historical context, but I guess not in the context you’re using it in.
The current context is about moral values, civic values, personal responsibility. Those are the things that aren’t being taught in schools. Along with history, science, math, art, music. We don’t have safe spaces for kids so they won’t be offended by a Halloween costume. We don’t use pronouns. We teach them phonics. We teach Singapore math. They learn to speak Latin. Every student learns a musical instrument. And by the way, a large number of our students are Title I, from poor families, underprivileged families. It’s not just rich white people. We don’t even pick our students; it’s a lottery. The mission of the school shows that standards are important—even poor people have standards.
You say you don’t have safe spaces for kids to be offended by, say, a Halloween costume, but aren’t you just protecting kids, giving them a safe space, from Michelangelo’s David?
Come on, Dan. That’s ridiculous.
It seems the same to me!
You’re determined to make this a story about David. You’re going to give it the mainstream media slant.
I’m running this as a Q&A, including everything I say and everything you say. Showing our disagreement. I’m not going to give it some spin, like “Here’s a crazy Republican.”
You’re going to be objective. That’s the job of a journalist.
Well, I have my opinion! But I’m trying to show your side as truthfully as possible.
Well, I’m dubious that’s what will happen.
You can text me and tell me how I did.
I will. Again, your premise is incorrect. We don’t have any problem showing David. You have to tell the parents ahead of time, and they can decide whether it is appropriate for their child to see it.
Have you heard from parents who disagree about forcing the principal to resign? Or are most of the parents in agreement with this decision?
We’ll hear from a lot of parents. We have a board meeting on Monday night, our general monthly meeting. We spent probably close to an hour listening to public comment this week, at the special meeting. My intent, and the board’s intent, is not to shut anybody down. There were people hollering for me to step down.
Were those people parents?
You’re not gonna hear from people who are happy about it. If they’re happy, they’re not going to speak at a public meeting. I’m certain the vast majority of parents have no problem with it. And again, no one has a problem with David. It’s not about David.
Three parents had a problem with David.
Three parents objected. Two objected simply because they weren’t told in advance. One objected because the teacher said nonpornography. Nonpornography—that’s a red flag. And of course telling the students, “Don’t tell your parents”—that’s a huge red flag!
Wait, so the objection was just that the teacher used the word pornography in a sixth grade classroom?
Yes, that word is inappropriate in that classroom. No. 1, no one said it was pornography. No. 2, it’s not on the curriculum. No. 3, you don’t need to be saying that word in a classroom in Florida!
Look, here’s my opinion, and please tell me what you think of it. If I was an educator, I would never think that showing this extremely famous statue sculpted in the classical style, in a classical school, in a lesson about Renaissance art, would be, as you say, “controversial.” That it would require a letter to parents. Not to middle school students, not even to elementary school students! Is your goal to be more clear about what is and isn’t controversial?
Well, No. 1, yes, I appointed an ad hoc committee so we can see if everybody can come to some kind of consensus on this. No. 2, you’re a reporter, and I wouldn’t expect you to think like a teacher. Teachers are taught what’s controversial. The fact that this art teacher had the gumption to say that we need to send out a letter documents that. But the letter wasn’t sent out. And he didn’t check to make sure that it was sent out.
Wait, so the teacher requested one, but the principal didn’t send it out?
Yes. And he didn’t check. That was an egregious mistake, and we won’t make that mistake again.
I just don’t think this statue is controversial.
We’re not going to show the full statue of David to kindergartners. We’re not going to show him to second graders. Showing the entire statue of David is appropriate at some age. We’re going to figure out when that is.
And you don’t have to show the whole statue! Maybe to kindergartners we only show the head. You can appreciate that. You can show the hands, the arms, the muscles, the beautiful work Michelangelo did in marble, without showing the whole thing.