The far right’s national plan for schools: Plant charters, defund public education

In recent years, Hillsdale College, a small private Christian school in Michigan, has quietly become a driving force in America’s ongoing fights around education. A “feeder school” for the Trump administration, Hillsdale led President Trump’s controversial 1776 Commission and serves as a testing ground for the right’s most ambitious ideas: For instance, that diversity erodes national unity, that Vladimir Putin is a populist hero and that conservatives should lure so many children out of public schools that the entire system collapses.

Hillsdale has inconspicuously been building a network of “classical education” charter schools, which use public tax dollars to teach that the U.S. was founded on “Judeo-Christian” principles and that progressivism is fundamentally anti-American. In January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced plans to partner with Hillsdale to launch as many as 50 such schools, which public education advocates fear could be a tipping point in the privatization battle.

In this three-part series, Salon looks at Hillsdale’s multifaceted and far-reaching role in shaping and disseminating the ideas and strategies that power the right. In our first installment, we met Hillsdale president Larry Arnn, a Winston Churchill scholar who led Trump’s short-lived 1776 Commission and has used his connections to right-wing thought leaders like Ginni Thomas and Betsy DeVos to turn his school into a political powerhouse. In the second installment, we explored the curriculum taught at Hillsdale and widely promoted through its national network of charter schools, which is informed by a deeply conservative understanding of American history, an “originalist” reading of the U.S. Constitution and an explicit desire to undo progressive educational reforms of the last 100 years.

The Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), part of Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, opened its doors in August 2020 with a combative flair. The school flew a pro-police “Thin Blue Line” flag and announced its adoption of a sex-ed curriculum “designed to support parent authority and family values,” which, an ACLU review has found, includes the suggestion that LGBTQ students may outgrow their orientations or identities, and that women who have abortions are “destroying” themselves. While other school districts around the country stressed over masking or whether to open in person at all, OCCA advertised its complete lack of pandemic restrictions.

Students primarily read the works of white men, since “the great leaders, thinkers, scientists, writers, and artists of Western Civilization have mostly been white men.”

An FAQ on the school’s website makes clear that, like Hillsdale itself, it offers a classical education focused primarily “on the history and cultural achievements of Western civilization,” which it sees as “the heritage of every scholar at OCCA,” no matter where they come from. Students primarily read the works of white men, since “the great leaders, thinkers, scientists, writers, and artists of Western Civilization have mostly been white men.” While teachers will discuss historical bigotry or discrimination “when appropriate,” they won’t judge historical figures by modern standards.

In sum, it’s a plan tailor-made to address the conservative complaints of the past two years, which OCCA co-founder Jeff Barke says has now earned the school a 1,000-student waitlist, largely from conservative homeschooling families. But it wasn’t an easy road to get there. 

Barke and his OCCA partner, Mark Bucher, had to try multiple times before the Orange Unified School Board (a local elected body, not the county-wide board led by Mari Barke) finally approved their petition in December 2019, after a contentious, five-hour meeting that lasted past 1 a.m. 

At that meeting and before, critics both among the public and board raised a number of red flags about the OCCA proposal. The school’s supporters, noted board members, seemed to have gathered signatures for their petition by canvassing minority neighborhoods and making the unfounded promise that OCCA graduates would receive preferential consideration and scholarships to nearby Chapman University, where one of Mari Barke’s colleagues on the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) is a dean and that colleague’s husband is president. (Chapman is also where Trump coup planner John Eastman taught until last year.) 

Over his years of education advocacy, board member Kathryn Moffat said, Bucher had been involved in a handful of scandals: There was a bus privatization contract that left students stranded on the street, and a school whose charter was revoked after accusations of nepotism, self-dealing and the fraudulent use of more than $25 million in taxpayer funds. The woman OCCA first proposed as its headmaster had caused public outcry the year before over a Facebook post in which she called Colin Kaepernick an “anti-American thug.” 

Even the administrator of an area Christian school wrote in to warn that OCCA’s plan amounted to illegal public funding of religious schools. 

Amid the final 2019 hearing, three of the seven Orange United board members opposed the OCCA petition, calling it a “fiscal” and “curricular nightmare” with a transparent religious and cultural bias, and saying that Barke and Bucher weren’t professional educators but “ideological and political activists.” Even the administrator of an area Christian school wrote in to warn that OCCA’s plan amounted to illegal public funding of religious schools. 

RELATED: Charter schools are pushing public education to the breaking point

But the three critics on the board were in the minority, up against four conservatives, two of whom had received nearly their entire campaign budget from a PAC affiliated with the California Charter Schools Association. 

“Clearly they needed to recuse themselves,” said Lynn Riddle, a retired federal judge who spoke at the meeting to warn about the apparent conflicts of interest. “If you ask anybody, anywhere, which way you might lean if you get almost 100 percent of your money from one donor and the donor is a party to a decision you’re going to make, it’s not rocket science.”

Barke and Bucher also brought more than 100 supporters to pack the meeting, squaring off against a cadre of opponents affiliated with the teachers’ union, whom Barke later described, in an interview with the right-wing Epoch Times, as resembling members of “antifa.” 

In an interview with Salon, Barke chalked the criticism he and Bucher received up to “character assassination” from unions that hate OCCA “because we’re competition.” He said neither he nor Bucher would ever financially profit from the charter, and that, to the contrary, he’d donated much of his own time and money to the school. He dismissed the suggestion that OCCA was “a religious school in disguise” as “a flat-out lie designed to stir up opposition.” That said, he continued, the school is “not afraid to teach kids about the deep religious founding of our country and the beliefs of our founders that were steeped in Judeo-Christian values.” 

In the summer of 2020, amid Jeff Barke’s growing celebrity as an anti-lockdown activist, Mari Barke used her position at the OCBE to issue a set of guidelines calling for in-person schooling without masks, social distancing or reduced class sizes. Those guidelines were ostensibly the result of an expert panel OCBE convened that June, but were actually written by the panel’s moderator, Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center, the right-wing think tank where Mari Barke works. (Swaim later admitted that he’d written most of the document before the panel even met.) When the guidelines drew significant national attention, four of the panelists distanced themselves or asked to have their names removed from the document. Nonetheless, Mari Barke cited it soon thereafter in written testimony for a lawsuit seeking to compel Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen California schools. 

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This January, Jeff Barke echoed him, urging the congregation at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills to “Leave the government schools! … And if you’re not going to do that, then run for the school board.”

Over the summer, Mari Barke suggested that parents looking for in-person education should consider charters, and Jeff Barke promised that OCCA would open that fall “with no restrictions.” That July, Swaim said that OCCA would somehow “operate under the aegis” of the California Policy Center, and, like the Barkes, urged parents angry about pandemic restrictions to seek out charters as a rebuke to the regular public school system. “If we can get parents switched into charter schools or private schools,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “we’re going to make those union schools pay for their failings.” 

“If your child isn’t in school, they won’t have the money, the unions won’t get funded, and those schools will close down.” 

If public schools began mandating vaccines for children, he added, hundreds of thousands of people should descend on Sacramento in protest. “If enough of us stand up, and enough of us say, ‘If you do this, my child will no longer be in a government school,'” he told the church, they could win. “Because with your child comes the education dollars, and if your child isn’t in school, they won’t have the money, the unions won’t get funded, and those schools will close down.” 

Until recent years, the term “government schools” was pejorative rhetoric used almost exclusively by the Christian right, which for decades has called on believers to leave public schools. But through the pandemic, both that language and the sentiment behind it — that a slow war of attrition might cause the public education system to collapse — have gone mainstream. 

When I asked Jeff Barke about this, he doubled down, suggesting that the “silver lining of COVID” is a “mass exodus from traditional government schools,” and calling for the abolition of the federal Department of Education. 

But none of that, he says, is political. “It’s not our desire to fight politics in education,” Barke told me. “It’s our desire to rescue education from politics.” 

“Orange County is a hotbed of extremism and has been for a while, but it’s really exploded over the past couple of years,” said Katie Hill, a parent activist in nearby Riverside who has tracked the Barkes’ influence on local schools closely. “People in Orange County are pretty tuned into the radicalization of the school boards and their fellow community members. It’s just a matter of what you can do to stop it, because there is so much money funding all of this.” 

During Mari Barke’s tenure, the OCBE has emerged as a culture-war force unto itself. The board opens its meetings with a prayer, and when a school board in nearby Chino voted in 2019 to drop its long-standing legal battle to allow prayer and Bible readings during public meetings, the OCBE picked up the case on Chino’s behalf. The OCBE has sued Orange County’s superintendent twice in the last few years, in addition to its three lawsuits against Gov. Newsom, all on the public dime. The board’s primary purpose, Mari Barke says, is to serve as a sort of appellate court for charter schools that have been rejected at the local level, and in such cases, the charters almost always win.

But she dismissed the notion that campaign donations she or her OCBE colleagues have received from pro-charter groups represent a conflict of interest. “I don’t do what I do because they support me,” she said. “They support me because of my beliefs and because I am pro-school choice.” 

As even conservative local media have pointed out, OCBE has repeatedly hosted public meetings on topics over which it has no control, largely to serve as a platform for angry right-wing parents, as with a July 2021 forum on “critical race theory,” organized in response to new state standards for ethnic studies courses and one such course proposed at a local county high school. (Jeff Barke also wrote a series of letters to the editor during that conflict, suggesting that approving the course would somehow lower property values in the surrounding neighborhood.) 

At one point in 2021, Mari Barke also spoke at another Calvary Chapel church, in Silverado, urging congregants to show up at local meetings on school oversight and pandemic restrictions, describing the scene they’d encounter as “kind of like a mini-Trump rally out in our parking lot.” 

“Every meeting, show up,” she continued. “If we all fight, we’ll win.” 

Nine days later, noted Hill, a contingent of Proud Boys and other far-right activists from outside Orange County showed up to protest a Los Alamitos school board meeting, leading police to recommend the board cancel their in-person session. 

RELATED: Right-wing authoritarianism is winning — but higher education is where we can fight back

This January, after Orange County began a post-census redistricting process, and a bill was proposed to move school board elections to align with general elections in November — when the electorate is likely to be much larger and more liberal — the OCBE’s conservatives counterattacked, describing the plans as a partisan Democratic effort to “break up our board majority fighting for parental rights.” On the night Jeff Barke spoke at Jack Hibbs’ church, he said many OCCA parents had gone to a different local meeting instead, to protest “evil forces that are trying to prevent [Mari] and her board from doing what they’re doing.” 

Two weeks later, a related hearing was held at the county’s Committee on School District Organization, where one of Mari Barke’s conservative OCBE colleagues led supporters in prayer in the parking lot outside. Riddle recalled that meeting as a bizarre experience, with a parade of speakers, many wearing OCCA shirts, testifying against the plan and in favor of the OCBE. “They were led to believe that something untoward was going on in this discussion that put them or others like them in jeopardy,” she said. “Some of them were actually weeping — about things that had nothing to do with putting their children at risk, nothing to do with this mapping process.” 

Eventually the meeting devolved into shouts that the redistricting committee was discriminating against the parents, that they were Communists or Nazis or “white racist bitches.” Now the OCBE is suing that committee too. 

*  *  *

The drama around OCCA has been particularly volatile, thanks to both the pandemic politics swirling around Jeff Barke and Mari Barke’s seeming conflicts of interest. But similar dramas have played out around the country, if often more quietly, as Hillsdale’s charter school initiative has spread. 

“It takes place school-by-school, district-by-district, and so doesn’t get that much national attention.”

“This is the sort of campaign that goes under the radar. It takes place school-by-school, district-by-district, and so doesn’t get that much national attention,” said Jeff Bryant, a journalist with the Independent Media Institute who covered a Hillsdale charter fight in Colorado seven years ago, which sparked heated accusations that the proposed school was seeking to offer religious instruction in disguise. That charter ultimately passed, despite its request for numerous exemptions from state laws related to bullying, student privacy and discrimination, among others.

More recently, a school board director outside Colorado Springs sought to introduce Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum so students would “know what it means to be an American.” 

He wasn’t the first. In the mid-2010s in Michigan, Tea Party activist Pasquale Battaglia tried to open a BCSI charter, the Livingston Classical Academy, in order to “train up American Citizen Patriots.” Local critics highlighted the fact that Battaglia initially proposed the school under the name “Livingston Christian Academy,” and for years discussed plans to build a “God and Country” education project to return schooling to the days in which “The first and foremost ‘text book’ is always the Holy Bible.” They also pointed to Battaglia’s track record of posting inflammatory material online, including calling climate change a “Prog ploy,” sharing a meme comparing Michelle Obama to “The Predator,” declaring “The only way to successfully negotiate with Islam is to present them their complete destruction,” and quoting Joseph Stalin as perverse inspiration: “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” 

In Florida, the principal of Naples Classical Academy, a BCSI charter, similarly came under scrutiny for his social media history, including posts about Muslim “gang rape marathons,” “Muslim indoctrination in US schools,” and purported revelations about ties between Common Core curriculum and “Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.” (Asked about these examples, a spokesperson for Hillsdale responded that Hillsdale “does not own, govern, or manage any of its affiliated schools,” but that if “uncivil behavior comes to our attention,” they flag it for school leaders.)

Sometimes BCSI schools have had to shop around extensively before finding an authority willing to approve their petition. In Michigan, the Livingston Classical Academy eventually opened as a BCSI charter, though not under Battaglia, after a roundabout method of obtaining a “cyber charter” authorization to open what is in practice primarily an in-person school. (In 2021, the school’s board announced it would not renew its partnership agreement with BCSI.)

In Indiana, said MaryAnn Ruegger, a board member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, Hillsdale has repeatedly sought to make inroads in a state that’s already a locus of the “school choice” movement. It has only managed to open one school so far, the Seven Oaks Classical Academy, which was twice denied by Indiana’s Charter School Board, on which Ruegger now sits. On its third try, the charter was authorized by Grace College, a small private evangelical school in Winona Lake, a town with deep roots in fundamentalist Christian history and the onetime home of famed evangelist Billy Sunday.

Last year, BCSI turned to a Native American tribal college in Wisconsin to authorize that state’s first Hillsdale charter, the Lake Country Classical Academy, after all other potential authorizers rejected their application. Critics noted that the academy didn’t serve children of that Native tribe, and that the school’s curriculum notably downplays the historical crimes committed against Native Americans. 

As Wisconsin Examiner editor-in-chief Ruth Conniff noted in a December investigation, there’s a financial incentive for groups that authorize charters, since sponsors receive a percentage of all per-pupil funding contributed by the state. Conniff also reported that Lake Country benefited from friends in high places, with a state conservative Supreme Court justice — himself the co-founder of a private Christian school that bans LGBTQ teachers or students — attending the charter’s open house in December. 

In many states where Hillsdale has planted a flag, BCSI charters enjoy political connections, but the pattern in Florida is particularly egregious.

In many states where Hillsdale has planted a flag, BCSI charters enjoy political connections, but the pattern in Florida is particularly egregious. Former Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds is one example. The wife of Rep. Byron Donalds — who was a speaker at this year’s CPAC, where he declared that “the battle for our future” runs through the nation’s schools — Erika Donalds helped found an alternative association for conservative Florida school board members and later served on the educational transition team for Gov. Ron DeSantis. When she left the school board after one term in 2018, Donalds founded a consultancy group called the Optima Foundation, specifically to help launch BCSI charters. Her website reports she has worked with four such schools in Florida to date. 

Sue Woltanski, author of a public-school advocacy blog and a member of the Monroe County School Board in the Florida Keys, says the political influence runs deep. “If you look at who opened any of the charter schools in Florida,” she said, “you’re going to find either Erika Donalds and Optima or someone who used to be in the Florida legislature.” 

Another example is Anne Corcoran, who is married to Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, and who served as both a board member and director of BCSI’s Tallahassee Classical School until 2019. That was when local newspapers noted a conflict of interest, after Richard Corcoran recruited Hillsdale to help the state draft a new, more “patriotic” civics curriculum. 

Richard Corcoran — who has reportedly suggested cutting the public school system by two-thirds and whose brother has worked as a lobbyist for a charter school management company — spoke at Hillsdale the same year, telling the school’s attendees to view education as the battlefield where Republicans could win the political war. In that fight, Corcoran said, steady progress toward school privatization was being made. 

As Florida Republicans move closer to achieving their stated long-term goal of making 100 percent of the state’s students eligible for school vouchers, Corcoran suggested that once the state manages to lure 1.5 million students away from public schools — to get those kids “across that Rubicon,” as he put it — the resultant loss of funding and forced consolidation would alter the educational landscape so radically that not even future Democratic governors could change it back. Indeed, they might be getting close already, he said, with almost a third of that number already using vouchers or in charters.

“You can’t take those 500,000 kids and bring them back into the public school system.”

“You can’t take those 500,000 kids and bring them back into the public school system. So you have to keep doing what we’re doing, as quickly as we’re doing it,” he said. To illustrate his point, Corcoran turned to the example of Tennessee. “Dr. Arnn was talking about Tennessee asking for 100 Barney initiative charter schools. That’s a game-changer. Once you have that, and all of a sudden the governor leaves … and it’s a liberal that comes in there, you can’t put the animals back in the barn.” 

What that means, explains Amy Frogge, a former member of the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education in Tennessee and executive director of the public-school advocacy organization Pastors for Tennessee Children, is that charter expansion on a large scale poses an existential threat to public education. “As charter schools proliferate, they strip public schools of adequate funding,” she said, “and in Tennessee, our schools have been inadequately funded for 30 years. At the same time, they ‘cream’ students from traditional schools.”

RELATED: Fighting back against CRT panic: Educators organize around the threat to academic freedom

What happens then, Frogge continued, is something of a death spiral: “Public schools are left serving increasing numbers of high-needs, high-cost students who are being deprived of the resources they need to succeed. Bringing charters and voucher schools into the school system is a recipe for failure for the public school system. Nationally, what we’re seeing is a very intentional effort to dismantle public education in this fashion.” 

Describing the charter campaign in Indiana, Ruegger agreed: “If enough of this pushes through here, whether it’s Barney or other charters, my little hometown will lose its public school,” since the same small class sizes that charters advertise as a perk are used as justification to shut down and consolidate public schools.

Almost a year after Corcoran’s prediction, that promise is on its way to being fulfilled. Along with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s announced partnership with Hillsdale and an initial funding commitment of $32 million, the state legislature is acting to speed up the charter school application process, allowing petitioners to bypass local school boards and apply directly to a state commission with a history of overruling local opposition. The bill also drastically eases the path for authorized charters to expand through purchasing “underutilized” school buildings for a $1 fee, while requiring the public school district to bear the cost of any major repairs or outstanding debts. 

“It’s a billionaire’s movement, and I believe that all the controversy about critical race theory and those issues are being stirred up in order to drive a ‘failing schools’ narrative.” 

“The privatization push is very well-developed by PR firms,” said Frogge. “It’s a billionaire’s movement, and I believe that all the controversy about critical race theory and those issues are being stirred up in order to drive a ‘failing schools’ narrative.” 

In many small towns, she continued, where schools are the linchpin of the community, that’s a difficult task. “Most communities love their local public schools. They have high school football games, and their friends and family members teach at the schools. The only way the privatization movement can gain ground is to create controversy and distrust of the public school system.” 

“That’s what all of this,” Frogge said — meaning the book bans, the CRT panic, the attacks on teachers and school staff — “is about.” 

*  *  *

On Feb. 2 at the Orange County Board of Education meeting, Jeff Barke’s bid to begin opening new OCCA campuses around the county passed by a 3-1 vote, with Mari Barke abstaining. (Legal questions around the petition could not be addressed by the OCBE’s regular general counsel — a guest contributor to the California Policy Center who’s helped the board fight the county superintendent — who also had to recuse himself because he also works with OCCA.) 

A particularly painful moment arrived when Beckie Gomez, the lone board member outside the OCBE’s conservative majority, as well as its sole trustee of color, objected to Mari Barke remaining on the dais during the debate. When Gomez suggested that her presence could still influence the proceedings, from the audience, OCCA parents who had come to support the expansion plan burst out laughing, prompting an exasperated plea from Gomez that everybody try to “be kind.” When the board member acting in Mari Barke’s stead put the question to a vote — joking that he wasn’t married to Barke, and she couldn’t influence him — everyone but Gomez voted to allow Mari to remain. Less than an hour later, the board approved OCCA’s unconditional expansion and the room broke into cheers. 

Watching a livestream of the meeting from home, Briana Walker, a local mother who’s been drawn into activism around OCCA, logged off in disgust at the seeming inevitability of the outcome. 

“I don’t think people realize what this entails,” Walker said. Once these kinds of schools are approved, “there’s almost no way to get them unapproved. It’s never going to happen. They’re going to be able to run amok in our county.” Just last month, she noted, came news that an OCCA board member will run against Orange County’s incumbent superintendent, potentially increasing their influence even more.

Oropeza agreed, warning that “by the time a [BCSI] school is in your community,” a lot of groundwork has already been laid to secure its success. She compared the situation to the proliferation of model bills written by corporate interests and then enacted by Republican lawmakers in state legislatures around the country: “You put it together, and it’s impossible for people who learn about this plan a year or two later to fight the momentum these people have created for themselves.” 

The long-term goal of the entire Hillsdale-driven educational universe, as Sue Woltanski of Florida’s Monroe County School Board sees it, is no mystery: moving a critical mass of children out of the public schools, as a means of destabilizing and then destroying them. 

RELATED: Republicans’ war on education is the most crucial part of their push for fascism

“They basically allow for segregation academies. They’re allowed to fund their own Christian views.”

“I think, like Corcoran said, the battle for America will be won in education,” she said. “There are so many wins for conservatives by privatizing education. They get to control the message, decrease taxes and get access to the hearts and minds of all the children in America. They get to kill the teachers’ union — that one can’t be stressed enough. They basically allow for segregation academies. They’re allowed to fund their own Christian views. All of these things are connected.” 

And it’s happening on multiple levels, Oropeza says — federal, state and local. “They’re going to keep plugging away because they have the resources, they have the connections and they have the vision. They’re playing the long game, and while Hillsdale might not seem important now, with their 53 schools, all they have to do is get a few states to adopt their standards, and the game changes.”

That game-changing moment may have arrived last month. But unlike previous BCSI charter efforts, which have largely gone unnoticed outside affected local communities — and, as journalist Jeff Bryant notes, have drawn little protest from Democrats — Gov. Lee’s grandiose plans for Tennessee have sparked substantial pushback. State Democratic leaders have criticized the plan as academically unnecessary, an attack on public education and, in the words of Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, the retailing of a “warped version of history.” Local journalists have accused Lee of seeking to create “a network of publicly-funded, private Christian schools” and Hillsdale of a backdoor form of money-laundering. On Feb. 28, the ACLU of Tennessee filed an open records request seeking all records related to Lee’s partnership with the college. 

To Frogge, this is a heartening wake-up call. “I’ve been advocating for public education for 10 years, and the last couple of years have been extremely difficult,” she said. “It seems sort of hopeless, and like everything is just rolling through the legislature.” 

This time, things seem different: “Perhaps it’s the overreach, but I think it has awakened a lot of people to what the privatization movement is all about, which is not the well-being of students.”

Read more of Kathryn Joyce’s reporting on the far right:


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