INVESTIGATION

How this tiny Christian college is driving the right’s nationwide war against public schools

Exclusive: In the full-scale conservative assault on public education, Hillsdale College is leading the charge

By Kathryn Joyce

Published March 15, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

A shiny red apple with a cross carved into it (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
A shiny red apple with a cross carved into it (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

This is the first of a three-part investigation of Hillsdale College, its charter school network and its connection to the national struggle over education.

The mood in Costa Mesa on Feb. 2 was more love bomb than fire bomb: yet another school board meeting packed with impassioned parents. But this time they'd come out, on a mild Southern California evening, not to let the board know how angry they were, but how delighted. 

The parents who rose to speak at the monthly meeting of the Orange County Board of Education weren't shouting about mask mandates, vaccine requirements, trans kids on sports teams or books about racism. They didn't have to. Instead, mother after mother, with young children in tow or on their hips, came to the podium to say that their kids used to cry before going to school, but now were filled with confidence and wonder; that they had found a transformative community among the school's other moms; that the teachers were giving their children "the best education in the entire country." 

One former homeschooler said she'd always sworn to keep her kids out of public school, but the one they attended now had changed all that. One father was moved to talk about sunsets in explaining how the school's mission was uniquely equipped to guide children toward goodness, beauty and truth. From the dais, the board members beamed back at the parents, and when a lone trustee protested that they should address a conflict of interest that appeared to undermine the entire proceedings, the audience burst into laughter and the trustee's colleagues, amid jokes, voted her down. 

The school under discussion that night wasn't a regular public school. It was a recently-launched charter called the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), which is funded with taxpayer money but follows a private school-like curriculum centered "on the history and cultural achievements of Western civilization" and an ambiguous mission to instill "virtue."

The public face of OCCA is its charismatic co-founder, Dr. Jeff Barke, a Newport Beach "concierge physician" who gained national notoriety as one of the most outspoken skeptics of pandemic public health policies and has voiced vitriolic opposition to today's public schools. 

Barke's wife Mari, as it happens, is president of the Orange County Board of Education, which was deciding whether to allow OCCA to expand to new campuses throughout the affluent suburban county of nearly 3.2 million people. (That was the evident conflict of interest that sparked laughter from the crowd.) Although Orange County is more a purple than a deep-red jurisdiction these days, that board is dominated by a conservative majority, swept into power over the last several years thanks to an unprecedented influx of right-wing cash. 

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

But OCCA isn't only a school, or even a network of schools. It's just one facet of a national movement driven by the vision and curriculum of Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in southern Michigan that has quietly become one of the most influential entities in conservative politics. 

In an era of book bans, crusades against teaching about racism, and ever-widening proposals to punish teachers and librarians, Hillsdale is not just a central player, but a ready-made solution for conservatives who seek to reclaim an educational system they believe was ceded decades ago to liberal interests. The college has become a leading force in promoting a conservative and overtly Christian reading of American history and the U.S. Constitution. It opposes progressive education reforms in general and contemporary scholarship on inequality in particular. It has featured lectures describing the Jan. 6 insurrection as a hoax and Vladimir Putin as a "hero to populist conservatives around the world." 

If you wonder what conservatives hope to install in place of the books they're trying to ban, the answer often lies in Hillsdale's freely-licensed curricula.

If you thought that Donald Trump's 1776 Commission — a jingoistic alternative to the New York Times' "1619 Project" that was roundly panned by historians — died with his presidency, that effort is now being amplified and exported, on a massive scale, around the country. If you wonder what conservatives hope to install in place of the books they're trying to ban, the answer often lies in Hillsdale's freely-licensed curricula. 

And as Republicans move into a new phase of their long-game efforts to privatize public education, Hillsdale has become a key resource. Across the nation, conservative officials from state leaders to insurgent school board members are clamoring to implement Hillsdale's proudly anti-woke lesson plans, including the "patriotic education" premises of its recently released 1776 Curriculum, or add to its growing network of affiliated classical charter schools. 


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In late January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, used his State of the State address to tease the most ambitious Hillsdale-inspired plan to date: building as many as 50 new charter schools in partnership with the college; using its 1776 Curriculum to foster what Lee calls "informed patriotism"; and launching a university civics institute to combat "anti-American thought." 

As Hillsdale's president likes to say, "Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it's our weapon."

These linked trends amount to a vision of things to come if Republicans win their current war on public education. And war is how they see it. As one Republican leader promised at Hillsdale last spring, if conservatives can "get education right," they'll "win" the country "back." Or as Hillsdale's president himself likes to say, "Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it's our weapon." 

*  *  *

In the video that introduced most Americans to Jeff Barke, the doctor stands on the steps of a municipal building in Riverside, California, in May 2020, wearing green scrubs and a white lab coat and claiming to speak for thousands of silenced medical workers who believed the experts were wrong about COVID. In Barke's improbable telling, the video was an accident: He asked his wife to take a picture of him addressing the anti-lockdown rally for their adult children, but she inadvertently hit her phone's "record" button. The resulting footage was too large to email, so they posted it to Facebook instead, and the rest was unintentional history. 

The video went viral, and Barke began meeting fellow "freedom fighters" around the country. He helped organize America's Frontline Doctors, the right-wing group that became famous that July when around a dozen of its members stood before the Supreme Court, again in white coats, to call for reopening the country without delay. As later became clear, America's Frontline Doctors was organized in cooperation with the Trump campaign, and Barke's supposedly accidental activism was no more organic. 

Barke has been involved for years in right-wing politics in and around Orange County, a realm of beaches and upscale suburban sprawl that has been a centerpiece of American pop culture and is perceived as the birthplace of modern conservatism. Those 948 square miles south and east of Los Angeles are the "Nixonland" that helped create the prosperity gospel and served as the case study for Lisa McGirr's seminal history "Suburban Warriors." It's the place, Ronald Reagan often said, where "good Republicans go to die." 

Jeff Barke is a member of Orange County's Republican Central Committee and the conservative donor organization the Lincoln Club. When Mari Barke was a delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Jeff and their son attended as alternates, wearing matching stars-and-stripes suits. For 12 years, Jeff Barke was a member of the Los Alamitos school board, where he led a successful effort to require that a new course on environmental science also include dissenting opinions about climate change. 

Barke also became a combative presence on social media, calling for fast-tracking herd immunity through widespread virus infection, and suggesting that masking children is child abuse.

But in 2020, he graduated from local activism to national right-wing stardom as one of the most provocative voices around pandemic policy. He wrote a book, "Covid-19: A Physician's Take on the Exaggerated Fear of Coronavirus," with a foreword by Dennis Prager, co-founder of the right-wing video outlet PragerU. (Its fifth edition was published last month.) Barke also became a combative presence on social media, under the handle @rxforliberty, calling for fast-tracking herd immunity through widespread virus infection, and suggesting that masking children is child abuse. 

In one livestream interview, Barke whipped out a Sig Sauer pistol, describing it as his preferred pandemic protection. More recently, he has compared widespread COVID testing to unnecessary breast biopsies for healthy women. 

Although the Barkes are Jewish, Jeff undertook a regional mini-tour of megachurches that refused to shut down during the early days of the pandemic, and befriended a number of high-profile evangelical leaders, such as Chino megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs (himself somewhat notorious for blaming the violence of the Capitol insurrection on removing "God from the courts and from the schools"). The headmaster Barke hired to run OCCA is a member of Hibbs' congregation. For her part, Mari Barke is a former Trump 2016 campaign volunteer and an adviser to the Unity Project, a conservative coalition formed in 2021 to oppose vaccine mandates that has since become involved in the U.S. "trucker convoy" protesting pandemic restrictions (although Mari says she has no involvement with that effort). 

Along with all this advocacy, Jeff Barke was also working to get his school up and running, and the two campaigns appear strongly connected. Amid his short viral speech in Riverside, he pulled out a pocket version of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, telling the crowd they were written to restrain the government, not the people. The booklet, he later explained, was published by Hillsdale, where his son — after taking a break to work for Trump's Department of Agriculture — is an undergraduate. 

In an interview, Jeff Barke told me that attending multiple parents' weekends at Hillsdale had led him to see the school as "a beacon of liberty" that is "fighting to return America back to its founding roots."

Attending multiple parents' weekends at Hillsdale had led Barke to see the school as "a beacon of liberty" that is "fighting to return America back to its founding roots."

In appreciation, the Barkes became members of Hillsdale's top-tier donor "President's Club," and were listed on Hillsdale's website as members of its Parents Association Steering Committee. (In an interview with Salon, Mari Barke said she turned the invitation down, but her election biography includes the committee as one of her volunteer affiliations.) It was also through Hillsdale that Jeff Barke became friends with Tea Party activist Mark Meckler, cofounder of the right-wing group Convention of States, which seeks to hold an Article V convention that could lead to rewriting the U.S. Constitution, and where Jeff holds the puzzling title of "head physician."

In 2018, Jeff Barke lost his seat on the Los Alamitos school board, which his critics say was the result of controversial positions, such as his advocacy of climate-change denialism, although he blames a campaign against him by the local teachers' union. But as he later told Hibbs' church, "God had bigger plans." In that same year, Mari Barke was elected to the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) on a platform of "school choice and parental rights." Her campaign amassed an unheard-of war chest of around $425,000, more than half of that donated by the Charter Public Schools PAC. She also benefited from the support of the California Policy Center (CPC), a state-level affiliate of the State Policy Network, a coalition of more than 150 right-wing groups that promote model conservative legislation. According to a 2018 lawsuit, a CPC offshoot hired Mari Barke — shortly before she announced her OCBE candidacy — to instruct an ESL course for some of its Spanish-speaking pro-charter parent activists, thus enabling her to campaign "as a teacher." Today, she serves as the director of a CPC initiative that provides conservative policy analysis and training to state and local politicians. 

Through his wife's campaign, Jeff Barke got to know Mark Bucher, the California Policy Center's co-founder and a fellow member of the Lincoln Club. Bucher had been involved in local education politics for decades, promoting a series of school privatization and charter initiatives and using funds from far-right Christian philanthropist Howard Ahmanson to orchestrate a mid-'90s conservative takeover of the Orange Unified School Board — one of the county's 28 independent school districts, in and around the city of Orange (a different elected body than the OCBE). But by 2019, Barke said, Bucher had developed "a vision about classical education." Barke told him about Hillsdale, and history was made again. 

*  *  *

For decades, 1,500-student Hillsdale College — a liberal arts school in rural southern Michigan, founded by Baptist abolitionists in 1844 — has been known as a "citadel of conservatism." Its campus features prominent statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, its curriculum leans heavily into the Western canon of "Great Books" and it describes itself as "a trustee of modern man's intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture." 

In the 1980s, the college earned right-wing adulation for refusing to accept any federal funding, including student aid, to maintain its "independence in every regard"; in practice, this means it doesn't have to comply with federal regulations, such as Title IX prohibitions on sex discrimination or the reporting of student racial demographics. (In 2013, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn complained to a Michigan legislative committee about state officials visiting campus to assess whether the student body included enough "dark ones.") Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once summoned up Reagan and American colonist John Winthrop in calling Hillsdale a "shining city on a hill." 

Throughout the Trump years, there was a virtual revolving door that shuttled Hillsdale staff and alumni back and forth between the school, the White House and Capitol Hill.

But in recent years, Hillsdale has greatly expanded its influence, becoming one of the most significant actors in U.S. conservative politics — if also one of the least conspicuous. Throughout the Trump years, there was a virtual revolving door that shuttled Hillsdale staff and alumni back and forth between the school, the White House and Capitol Hill. (Vanity Fair described the college as "a feeder school for the Trump administration.") Right-wing politicians and thought leaders vie to give speeches at Hillsdale, which are then disseminated to a claimed audience of 6.2 million through the school's monthly publication, Imprimis. 

Arnn, who has led the school for the last 22 years, is a Churchill scholar from Arkansas with a penchant for folksy and antiquated diction. For him, college is "a hoot," freshmen are "little wigglers," his sons (affectionately) are "wastrels," and the emotional namesake patron of Hillsdale's charter school program, conservative philanthropist Stephen Barney, is (also affectionately) "a blubber baby." Arnn came to the college in 2000, in the wake of a shocking scandal that appeared to threaten Hillsdale's future. (The previous president allegedly had an affair with his son's wife, who subsequently killed herself.) 

But Arnn's mission went well beyond restoring stability. He was co-founder and later president of the Claremont Institute, an influential right-wing think tank that has spent the last six years trying to ret-con an intellectual platform for Trumpism and is also home to John Eastman, the law professor who tried to convince Mike Pence to throw out electoral votes and overturn Trump's defeat. Given those connections, Arnn seemed destined to deepen the school's ties to the conservative movement. He has succeeded, probably more than he could have expected.

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

In 2009 Hillsdale hired right-wing activist Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Thomas, to help the college launch a Washington campus on Capitol Hill, across the street from the Heritage Foundation (where Arnn is a board member). From that facility, which inspired a 2018 Politico feature entitled "The College that Wants to Take Over Washington," Hillsdale initially ran a joint fellowship program for senior congressional staff with Heritage and the Federalist Society.

The school's cheerleaders have included many of the biggest names in right-wing media, including the late Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Hugh Hewitt.

Ben Domenech, founder of right-wing publication The Federalist, has used a studio at Hillsdale's Washington campus to record his podcast, and Federalist editor in chief Mollie Hemingway teaches journalism there. Michael Anton, a former Trump White House adviser and author of the notorious essay, "The Flight 93 Election," which made an apocalyptic case for the necessity of electing Trump, has joined Hillsdale's Washington staff to lecture on politics. The school's cheerleaders have included many of the biggest names in right-wing media, including the late Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Hugh Hewitt, who for years has run a weekly interview series with Arnn and other Hillsdale faculty members that now includes hundreds of episodes.

Arnn endorsed Trump in 2016 (along with a number of Hillsdale staff, who dominated a group endorsement titled "Scholars & Writers for America") and was on the short list to serve as Trump's secretary of education. The new president of course picked Betsy DeVos instead, and she too has Hillsdale ties. Her brother Erik Prince, founder of the "military contractor" company previously known as Blackwater USA, is a Hillsdale graduate, and her family's foundations have made extensive donations to Hillsdale over the years. For a small liberal arts school, it has amassed an astonishing endowment of more than $900 million.

DeVos is philosophically aligned with Hillsdale's mission as well. In 2001, she called on conservative Christians to embrace the Republican "school choice" agenda as a more efficient means of advancing "God's Kingdom" than merely funding private Christian schools, since, as she told one group of wealthy believers, "everybody in this room could give every single penny they had, and it wouldn't begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country." Nineteen years later, in a speech at Hillsdale shortly before the 2020 election, DeVos invoked Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper (perhaps questionably) to argue that government should have little role in education and parents should be able to direct taxpayer funds to private schools. 

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

Two months later, Arnn was tapped to lead Trump's 1776 Commission, drafting a blueprint for "patriotic education" as a rebuttal to  "The 1619 Project." (The vice president of Hillsdale's Washington operations was also appointed to serve as the commission's executive director.) Although President Biden disbanded the commission the day he took office, Hillsdale released a closely related project last July: the 2,425-page 1776 Curriculum, offered as a free download on the school's website. In his own speech at Hillsdale in September, former secretary of state and potential 2024 presidential candidate Mike Pompeo called for the curriculum to "be taught each place and everywhere." 

Hillsdale's alumni are not unanimously happy with the direction Arnn has taken the school. Julie Vassilatos, who attended Hillsdale in the '80s, said that in those heady Reagan days, the school was certainly a world unto itself, "but not like Republican bubbles are now. I don't know if I can get this across — it wasn't insane." 

The first signs of a shift were visible, says one Hillsdale alum, when students began trickling in from homeschooling "survivalist" families.

By the time Vassilatos neared graduation, she said, the first signs of a shift were visible, as students began trickling in from homeschooling "survivalist" families. Nevertheless, Arnn's endorsement of Trump left her speechless. "When I was there, it was very ideologically oriented in a Great Books kind of way, towards 'the higher things,' 'the permanent things,' 'the good, the true and the beautiful.' So I have never been more shocked in my life than that they went for Trump, because he's the absolute opposite of everything I thought I was taught in college." 

Another alumnus, Tennessee writer and podcaster Sam Torode, who graduated in the late-'90s, likewise saw Arnn's support for Trump — particularly his 2020 re-endorsement, after the first impeachment, the family separation crisis and Charlottesville — as "a betrayal of everything I learned at Hillsdale." When Arnn's 1776 Commission released its report less than two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack, Torode drafted an open letter, signed by a few dozen former students, chastising Arnn for promoting the project in the immediate aftermath of "the greatest threat to the Constitution and America's representative democracy in our lifetimes." 

But Hillsdale's actual and planned expansion is much broader than its direct links to political power. In 2020, the college began building a Center for Faith and Freedom in a replica Monticello mansion in Connecticut, donated to the school along with a $25 million endowment by Friendly's restaurant magnate S. Prestley Blake. 

In December, Hillsdale launched a new Washington project, the Academy of Science and Freedom, to highlight the arguments of three prominent COVID-19 skeptics, including Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump's former pandemic adviser. In recent months Hillsdale has acquired a sizable tract of land outside Sacramento as part of plans to establish an education center in California. It's adapting its curricula for homeschooling parents and this year will launch a master's program to train teachers to staff its charter schools. Arnn recently said that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem offered to build Hillsdale "an entire campus" in that state. 

Next: How Hillsdale's charter schools empower stealth public funding for "religious ideology" and a deeply conservative view of American history and society 

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


Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce is an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Charter Schools Education Far-right Hillsdale College Investigation Jeff Barke Larry Arnn Mari Barke