TALLAHASSEE — The spotlight was on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as it so often has been over the past three years.
“Our speaker tonight is one of the most important people living,” Larry P. Arnn said as he introduced DeSantis as the keynote speaker at the Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar on Feb. 23 in Naples. Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College, a politically influential private Christian college in southern Michigan.
“This person’s most important work is before him — and we need him.”
The introduction highlights the relationship between DeSantis and the conservative college, which 12 years ago set out to reshape public education through the growth of charter schools and in recent years has expanded its reach in Florida’s education system.
The college’s influence has been seen in the state’s rejection of math textbooks over what DeSantis called “indoctrinating concepts,” the state’s push to renew the importance of civics education in public schools, and the rapid growth of Hillsdale’s network of affiliated public charter schools in Florida.
Hillsdale also has had sway over the Republican-led Legislature. In 2019, lawmakers approved a law that allowed the college and three other groups to help the state revise its civics standards. Three years later, those guidelines are part of a DeSantis-led civics initiative that has concerned several educators about an infusion of Christianity and conservative ideologies.
At the Hillsdale seminar in February, DeSantis was met with cheers and applause and delivered a speech focused on policy issues that have made him a rising star to the political right.
DeSantis talked about how since becoming governor, he has banned so-called sanctuary cities, fought lockdown policies during the pandemic, rejected “corporate media” pressures and reshaped the Florida Supreme Court to what he referred to as “the most conservative Supreme Court of any state in the country.”
The governor also highlighted his push to reform the state’s education system by continuing the two-decadeslong push by Republicans to expand school vouchers and charter schools. He also touted Hillsdale’s “flourishing” network of classical schools in Florida.
“I mean how many places, other than Hillsdale, are actually standing for truth, excellence and to produce people who will be leaders?” DeSantis said, after arguing that “woke-ism” is embedded in academic institutions.
Civics and math textbooks
A few months after DeSantis’ speech, two state-led efforts further highlighted the relationship between the governor and the college.
In April, the Department of Education made national headlines for its decision to reject dozens of math textbooks because they included references to critical race theory and other “prohibited topics” and “unsolicited strategies,” officials said at the time.
A Times/Herald review of nearly 6,000 pages of textbook examination showed only three of the 125 reviewers found objectionable content. Two of the three were affiliated with Hillsdale College. One was Jonah Apel, a sophomore student majoring in political science, and the other was Jordan Adams, a civics education specialist at the college.
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Apel is listed as the secretary of the Hillsdale College Republicans, a group whose mission includes connecting students to the “political arena” and “changing the United States in accordance with truth, liberty and human flourishing.” Adams is tied to Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum, a history- and civics-based education program that covers American history, government and civics to provide the “knowledge and understanding of American history and of the American republic as governed by the Constitution and morally grounded in the Declaration of Independence.”
The curriculum was released by the college in July 2021 amid growing partisan battles in school districts over issues like critical race theory and The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” which re-centered the focus on the nation’s history on the year the first enslaved Africans arrived. Lessons dealing with critical race theory and “The 1619 Project” were banned in Florida’s public schools a month earlier, at the request of DeSantis.
Apel and Adams were invited by the state to review “prohibited topics,” though Florida Department of Education officials have not responded to questions inquiring why they specifically invited people to scour for contentious issues like critical race theory. The state paid “prohibited topic” reviewers $500 per review, $170 more than they paid others who reviewed books to ensure the books matched the rest of the state’s math standards, state records show.
The Florida Department of Education reached out to the college to participate in the review, but Hillsdale spokesperson Emily Stacks Davis said the college declined “but provided the names of individuals who might aid the Florida Department of Education in this effort.”
The department then “communicated directly with those individuals as independent contractors. The consulting individuals do not represent Hillsdale College or its work,” Stacks Davis added.
The Florida Department of Education has not commented on why it hired a student and civics specialist from Hillsdale to review Florida’s math textbooks for “prohibited topics.”
The college played a more active role in helping the state revise its civics standards and develop a civics training program that teachers statewide can volunteer to participate in and earn a $700 stipend for attending. Hillsdale was among four groups that the Department of Education partnered with to create the training program.
The state also consulted with the Bill of Rights Institute, the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History, and the Florida Joint Center for Citizens, a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.
The efforts are part of DeSantis’ Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative, which was announced in spring 2021. Improving civics education has been a priority for the governor since before his election.
Hillsdale has not commented on the college’s role in the training program. But in an earlier statement, Stacks Davis said the school is often “sought for consultation on matters related to education since it is an authority in that realm.”
“The Department of Education was proud to partner with various organizations to help develop our revised civics and government standards,” department spokesperson Alex Lanfranconi said in a statement Thursday when asked about the state’s relationship with the Michigan college. “Hillsdale College boasts an impressive civics education program and stands as a top-50 liberal arts university.”
Hillsdale’s approach to teaching history has drawn praise from DeSantis and former Florida Secretary of Education Richard Corcoran, as well as national conservative figures like former President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
Arnn, the college’s president, was appointed by Trump to be the chairperson of the president’s Advisory 1776 Commission, which was formed to “advise the president about the core principles of the American founding and to protect those principles by promoting patriotic education,” according to Matthew Spalding, whom Trump appointed as the commission’s executive director. Spalding is the vice president for Washington operations and the dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale’s Washington, D.C., extension.
Hillsdale’s digital digest, Imprimis, features the writing of conservative thinkers like Christopher Rufo, who has worked with DeSantis to combat issues like critical race theory and gender identity.
The publication also includes articles with titles like, “The January 6 Insurrection Hoax,” “The Disaster at Our Southern Border,” “Gender Ideology Run Amok,” “Critical Race Theory: What it is and How to Fight it,” and “Who is in Control? The need to Rein in Big Tech.”
Through that brand, Hillsdale also has been able to rapidly grow its network of charter schools in Florida. The Barney Charter School Initiative is “devoted to the revitalization of public education through the launch and support of K-12 classical charter schools,” according to the college.
Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools are not owned or operated by the college. Instead, Hillsdale offers training for faculty and staff and shares its curriculum with the charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run. The services, which are offered free of charge, allow the college to expand the reach of its curriculum, which puts an emphasis on classical literature, core subjects and developing “moral character and civic virtue.”
The affiliation to Hillsdale can also be helpful to attract more parents, said Barney Bishop, a lobbyist who is a board member at the Tallahassee Classical School, which launched in 2020 with the help of Hillsdale.
“What attracts parents to us is they understand who and what Hillsdale College is,” Bishop said. He says people are also drawn to a classical education because he believes the teaching model emphasizes the difference between “right and wrong,” the “virtues that we hold in high esteem” and the “values and importance of personal responsibility.”
Since 2018, five classical public charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale have opened in Florida. Three of them have opened since 2020 — with four more in the pipeline in the next two school years. Overall, there are seven Hillsdale-affiliated public charter schools in Florida.
Back at the Hillsdale event in February, DeSantis shared why he personally likes what Hillsdale is doing overall.
“When I get people who submit resumes, quite frankly if I got one from Yale, I would be negatively disposed to that individual unless they showed some type of significant counter to the prevailing narrative,” DeSantis, a Yale alumni, said.
“If I get someone from Hillsdale,” he said. “I know they have the foundations necessary to be able to be helpful in pursuing conservative policies.”