The Right’s Educational Agenda

As regular readers of this blog know, Morton Marcus and I recently co-authored and published a small book on the women’s movement. (If you haven’t purchased it, I really wish you would…) We discovered that–despite our very different preoccupations–we work together well, and we’ve been considering another project, this time, an examination of educational privatization–aka the voucher movement.

But researching the consequences that most concern us ranges from tricky to impossible. There’s plenty of research demonstrating that privatization has failed to deliver what proponents promised: better test scores. Researchers can access that sort of data; many have, and the results are pretty straightforward–which is why voucher cheerleaders now talk about parental choice rather than improved educational outcomes.

We have another concern: that vouchers facilitate and encourage the polarization of the polity, undermining civic cohesion at a time when increasing population diversity makes civic unity both more difficult and more important.

The research problem is what academics call “self-selection.” Even if we were able to test the thesis that graduates of private, mostly religious voucher schools emerge less civically knowledgable or more religiously biased or more prone to misogyny, etc., there would be no way to attribute those outcomes to the schools; the likelihood is that parents choosing such schools considered those outcomes to be a feature, not a bug.

I ran into a similar roadblock several years ago; I’d hoped to research the effects of the built environment on social capital. Did people living in gated communities have measurably different connections to, or interactions with, other people? Again, the “chicken and egg” issue confounded me: it was likely that most people who chose to live in those gated communities already had similar levels of social capital.

We may or may not develop a data-driven analysis of the anti-democratic results of school privatization. We both recognize that our public schools are far from perfect–years of neighborhood segregation, among other things, created huge differences between schools. Some of the charter schools that were initially intended to be more innovative public schools have become indistinguishable from private academies. And not all parents who place children in a private or charter school are doing so in order to indoctrinate their offspring (or protect them from Black or Brown classmates).

That said, many of these schools are teaching a very Whitewashed American history.

One recent report traces the sharp, Rightward turn of a new breed of Charter schools.

NPE identified hundreds of charter schools, predominantly in red states, that use the classical brand or other conservative dog whistles to attract white Christian families to enroll in the school. From featured religious music videos to statements that claim they offer a faith-friendly environment, these charter schools are opening at an accelerated rate, with at least 66 additional schools in the pipeline to open by 2024. While some of these schools, such as the Roger Bacon Academies, are long-standing, nearly half of the schools we identified opened after the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Hillsdale College is a small, conservative Christian college that has long been noted for far-Right indoctrination, and it is one of the most influential organizations pushing these charters.

The small conservative Christian college in Michigan has become a major player in Ron DeSantis’s Florida; as the report says, “Tug any thread of Florida’s present education policy, and you will find this small Michigan college at the other end.”

Hillsdale’s president Larry Arnn was tagged by Donald Trump to head his short-lived 1776 Commission, charged with creating nationalistic history curriculum (a version of which is now offered by Hillsdale). He has made the occasional misstep, as when Hillsdale’s charter move into Tennessee was stalled after Arnn was caught saying that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Hillsdale works through its Barney Charter School initiative as well as providing its classical curriculum to member charters at no cost. In some cases, as with the Optima chain in Florida, the charter may be operated by a for-profit charter management firm (in the case of Optima, both the charter chains and the charter management organization are owned by the same person). The report found that among this new wave of conservative charter schools, the percentage of those operated by for-profit charter management companies is twice that in the charter sector as a whole.

Not every charter that advertises a classical curriculum is Rightwing; here in Indianapolis, Herron High School is an admirable example–and proudly public. But the morphing of charters into Rightwing indoctrination academies continues to gather steam.

I’m convinced that this movement endangers American democracy–but convincing data proving my hypothesis isn’t likely to emerge until Americans are living with the very undemocratic results.


  1. Are these propaganda businesses also tax exempt? They usually like to dodge taxes while doing evil.

  2. I would like Sheila to be interviewed about this on some local TV news where the general public can hear what she said in this column. People are not knowledgeable about charter schools. They think they are “public.” Not. Special dispensation for hiring teachers without licenses or training, no elected school board, special treatment for buying/ leasing vacant school buildings, no participation in State Teachers Retirement System (which Republicans say save lots of money for the state), no union contracts – thus no negotiating. I have been a lawyer and a public school teacher. I have read the statutes about charter schools and vouchers, and testified against the same in the legislature. This latest raising of the limits of income for access to vouchers is a travesty. Vouchers began to “help the minority children in failing schools” – I put that in quotes because conservatives have used this as a tool to defund public (or they call them government) schools. It is maddening to watch this eroding of the public schools – the bastion of democracy.
    BTW I had an op ed in 1999 in the Star about charters/vouchers so this is a subject dear to me. Thank you, Sheila, for this great blog.

  3. Linda; Sheila’s voice would not be heard by the public here because some cable channels are currently not contracted with all local news channels. Fighting over cost increases.

  4. EVERYTHING REPUBLICANS/FASCISTS TOUCH DIES. This also applies to the voucher-fueled school initiatives. The test score thing was really about attacking teachers unions. This “transition” to parental choice is about indoctrination of children, you know like Hitler’s “Jungedeutsch” system. That system created many fine Nazis who went on to run the death camps and other circus acts.

    In my book, “Saving the Seed Corn…” I discuss this horror show from its inception to now.

    Hillsdale is also funded by the Koch Foundation – as if anyone needed to know more. In the simplest of terms, the right wing extremists are destroying THIS country, just as they did Germany. In Germany, Hitler painted Jewery as the scapegoats. Here and now, the Republicans are tapping into the aggrieved white people and pointing out scapegoats across their fetid board. And here we are.

    Poison the minds of the children and hand them a sharpie so they can draw up their own weather maps.

  5. Great job, Linda!

    Vernon, I had a feeling that Hillsdale College might have ties to the Koch family. It’s concerning that they could potentially influence the education of individuals who share their anti-government beliefs. Who knows what kind of harm these graduates could cause in the future?

    Interestingly, I recently discovered that the Koch family has invested in more than 150 public colleges across the country. It seems like these “let the market decide” advocates have a hidden agenda. They’ve even trained their right-wing supporters to avoid leaving behind any incriminating evidence. Sheila and Morton may struggle to find data to support their argument, as the Koch family’s lawyers have been covering their tracks for years. When people use the term “dark,” they’re usually referring to the Kochs and their tactics.

    Even our local foundation goes dark when it doesn’t want the public to know what they’re up to. Lawyers cover their tracks — Tricks of the US Oligarchy.

  6. Todd,

    Re-read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money”. That book will tell you all you need to know about the sinister nature of the moguls. Also, read Lewis Powell’s infamous manifesto about corporate/banking America literally buying the nation’s democracy for the sake of profits.

  7. I signed up for the “free” Hillsdale College Course on the history of The Constitution. I wanted to see what the font of knowledge that is Hillsdale has to offer, particularly since Micah Beckwith cites Hillsdale as providing him with the knowledge by which he claims to be a “constitutionalist.” This is part of my blog on June 25 after getting half-way through the course.
    The course consists of 12 lectures that each run 23-40 minutes w/lecture 12 under 8 minutes. There are significant failures in the lectures. Premises: Hillsdale president Larry Arnn gives the 1st & last lectures. He uses photos of The White House, The Capitol and the Supreme Court to illustrate 3 branches of gov’t created by The Constitution. Those buildings did not exist & what now is D.C. was a swamp in 1787. The lectures imply Europeans landed on a continent w/o people. In 1491, pp. 35-36, Charles C. Mann says the Wampanoag confederation viewed Europeans who’d been “visiting New England for at least a century” as “often unbearably dirty” & prone to fits of chicanery.” The lecturers advance a view that our gov’t is morally superior than any that have gone before, but good aspects & bad are our history. A premise that is flawed is in religion. Mr Arnn says “god” appears 4 times in The Declaration. (Lec 1, 19:00.) That’s a stretch. Jefferson, among others of that generation, was a Deist. He respected “moral teachings of Jesus without believing in his divine status.” Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, 2006, p. 42. So “Nature’s God” is not biblical. Mr Arnn’s claims that “Supreme Judge,” “Divine Providence” and “Creator” fall still further from a deity of either testament. I cannot recommend the Hillsdale course. Beckwith is as much of a scholar on The Constitution, after going through these lectures, as I am about time travel after reading Calvin & Hobbes.

  8. Sadly, early numbers are showing that 300,000 students are going to receive vouchers under Florida’s new unrestricted program, almost double the number from last year. And the organization charged with processing applications (called Step Up—contracted by the state to avoid constitutional problems with funneling money to religious schools) stands to make more than $72 million in fees.

  9. Be sure to check out the relationship between Hillsdale College and the social studies curriculum in South Dakota. Also, Gov. Lee of Tennessee has been working to establish charter schools with the Hillsdale curriculum in Tennessee.

  10. The New School, which had built a reputation as a liberal arts college at the forefront of equality, has been turned over to Mr. Arnn for reconstruction. He’s well on his way to achieving his goals, as he has already forced out a number of faculty members. Many students have reason to leave,as they are members of minority and marginalized communities. I’ve heard rumors that the flagship universities are having trouble recruiting top researchers. It’s only going to get worse.

    One question I have, if I may. Was the Barney Charter School initiative named for Barney Fife?

  11. It doesn’t get much sadder. First, we stop teaching critical thinking in favor of multiple-choice “fact” answers. Now we go further…teaching “what to think”…IGIO

  12. In 2019 we moved from Hamilton County IN. to Hillsdale County MI. I, like Mark, took a course there right after moving here. I was not impressed, I sent them a check and since that time receive a monthly newsletter, The Imprimis. I suggest sending them a $25 check to observe how they operate. I also suggest that you may be interested in this short article that has some telling remarks such as the following:

    “On a poster, next to a list of the group’s party values (such as Bill of Rights, lower taxes, limited government) is the maxim “Hillsdale vs. Everybody.” This sentiment is echoed by the Hillsdale Republicans’ goals for the future.

    “We want to grow our membership through action and integrity, increase our voter base, and support Republican candidates,” said Smith.”

    The county has many fringe groups. Less than a mile from where I live is a 3%’er. The current sign in front of his home says: “My dog is smarter than Joe Biden”

    Last point you don’t need to look at other states to observe their efforts in developing schools. If you missed the hullabaloo in Carmel and Pike Townships here is one piece on the subject.

  13. “I’m convinced that this movement endangers American democracy–but convincing data proving my hypothesis isn’t likely to emerge until Americans are living with the very undemocratic results.”
    And by then, I fear, it will be too late. As Vernon often says, I’m glad I’m old. Unfortunately, my grandchildren are young.

  14. All this talk reminds me of the movie “The Wave”. I mean you can warn people only so much about where all this stuff “could” lead and then you begin to sound “paranoid” yourself. What concerns me, is seeing the change in my own veteran father. My father didn’t use to focus on gay people at all in his politics. Now I talk to him and he will go on for half an hour about “wokeness”. He came to visit me awhile ago and there were black people swimming in the hotel swimming pool having fun and he looked at me and said “Do they look oppressed?” I was shocked. My Dad never used to focus on gays and black people. And he doesn’t even see this in himself! And if I start to make any defense he scoffs at me and says “ I had no idea you were such a liberal” as if it’s a dirty word. This is the “brainwashing” that they are doing. And he’s running around participating in political campaigns! Furthermore, he doesn’t believe in climate change despite soaring temperatures, forest fires, and floods!

  15. Brainwashing knows no age restrictions, as noted by Suzanne.
    “the Right’s Educational Agenda” is part of their overall long term agenda, as set, in
    many ways by the Koch people. These people are long-haulers, working to set the
    groundwork for the odious changes they seek step by rancid step. Democracy has
    to contend with the likes of Hillsdale and Liberty U., whose law school teaches that the
    founders erected a Christian nation.
    Democracy needs to get rid of the Electoral College, Citizens United, and fix SCOTUS,
    in order to at least level the political playing field.
    Sometimes things do not seem to change until they already have done so. And then it is too late.
    Am I stating the obvious?

  16. Liberals have a political strategy to get/stay elected. Republicans have a strategy to remake the entire country permanently into their own monolithic image.

  17. Rick, one does not need to send Hillsdale College a check. They will gladly send you Imprimis regularly if you just sign up for it. I guess their goal is to poison as many minds as possible as quickly as possible and as regularly as possible.

  18. Pete – so succinct, so clear, so true…I would only add that much of the money to elect liberals comes from MIC, HIC, PIC….”industrial complexes”…all they care about is $$$$

  19. It was reported in the “New Yorker” last week that in 2011 Gretchen Whitmer, now Michigan’s Governor, was the senate minority leader of her state. She had been working with a family from her district for years on an anti-bullying law who’s 14 yr. old son had killed himself after an 8th grade graduation hazing ritual. The measure was set to pass but at last minute the Republicans under pressure from the Catholic Church, added a clause that would exempt bullies who claimed religious reasons! Whitmer took it public describing in a cartoon “license to bully.” Steven Colbert picked up the story and the republicans backed down.
    Using authoritarian harassment on children/teens to get them to conform is a method that needs to be banned in all schools. Just because a student crosses the threshold into a private, charter or public school doesn’t mean they leave their rights behind. Parents need to be vigilant!

  20. According to an article written by Libby Stanford and published in the June 23, edition of Education Week, Charter schools have evolved over the course of two decades, and their students now show greater academic gains than their peers in traditional public schools. This is according to a new report (CREDO National Charter School Study report, 2023) from a group of researchers who have studied the evolution of charters since 2000.
    I guess the debate continues. Have an enjoyable day.

  21. There has been plenty of criticism made here today about Charter Schools and the Hillsdale School plans. Lost in all of this is the real possibility that the public schools need to make some changes to their own curriculum. Let them begin with doing away with the horrid “teaching to the test” practices.
    Bringing back cursive writing and some aspects of a classical education would go a long way to keeping top students in the public schools system as well. Returning to common sense discipline that does not require lawyers is likewise needed.

  22. “Charter schools have evolved over the course of two decades, and their students now show greater academic gains than their peers in traditional public schools.” Let’s see, at least here in NC, charter schools don’t have to admit students with disabilities of any kind.

    About comparison with “peers”….same racial/ethnic makeup? Same socio-economic status?

  23. A few points

    Hillsdale Colloge was founded in the middle of the 19th Century by Baptists to train their clergy and their children. They were also abolitionists. That doesn’t speak about today. Liberty University, on the other hand, was found in 1971 by Jerry Falwell

    CREDO is part of the Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank at Stanford. Definition, and you can check it, “liberal” think tanks pose liberal questions (like how to help the poor, protect workers, etc.) and look for an answer; “conservative” think tanks (like Hoover) start with the answer (limited government and laissez-faire capitalism) and look to prove that it answers every question. Look at the mission statements.

    I sympathize with you Sheila, one of my last stints in biomedical research was on aging, but any treatment would have to start young and then you would have to wait years to see it it worked. Even rats aren’t “old” until they are 1 1/2 years old, and then how would you prove any treatment to delay senescence works in humans – start young and wait 80 years?

    The potential polarizing effect of charter and private schools would take decades to prove and there would be so many confounding factors.

    Test tube chemistry was always so much easier. 8)>

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