Megan Threlkeld: Hillsdale College’s New Strategy in the School Wars Merges Curriculum and Privatization through “Choice”
Megan Threlkeld is the Michael G. and Barbara W. Rahal Professor of History at Denison University. In this piece for the History News Network, she provides an overview of the strategy and tactics of Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale College is a conservative Christian institution in rural Michigan, proud of its defense of “our Western philosophical and theological inheritance” and scornful of the “dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity’.” Inspired by the report of Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission—chaired by Hillsdale President Larry P. Arnn—the college developed its 1776 Curriculum to help K-12 educators “provide an education that is both classical and American,” centered on the traditional liberal arts and sciences, with a particular emphasis on “the principles of moral character and civic virtue.”
She places Hillsdale in the history of both conservative and progressive attempts to steer public education, but she notes an important contrast.
Hillsdale College, by contrast, is waging an all-out war on public education. The college and its acolytes are the driving force behind the movement for “school choice”—the idea that parents should be able to use public funds to send their kids to whatever school they want, including charter schools, private, and even religious schools, or to homeschool them. School choice not only siphons money away from already underfunded public schools and redirects it toward those run by private interests with limited or no state supervision. It also severely limits the options of students who cannot navigate the landscape of choices or afford the additional transportation, tuition, and other costs of attending any school other than their local public one. Hillsdale has opened more than twenty charter schools since 2010, most recently under the guise of American Classical Education, a charter school operator now seeking to open dozens more “classical academies” across the country.
All of Hillsdale’s charter schools use the 1776 Curriculum, and 50 others have officially licensed it, though that likely underestimates its impact, because it is freely available online. Arnn claims the college’s open online courses have reached more than 3.5 million students. The curriculum, in the minds of its supporters, is the answer to supposed “Marxist” or “woke” indoctrination in social justice and “reverse racism” that they believe has become the hallmark of public schools. Education is the “weapon,” as Arnn likes to call it, that conservative Republicans will use to “retake” America from the left.
The curriculum’s influence reaches beyond the movement for school choice. It is also a key component of the push for “divisive concepts” bills and other educational gag orders that swept the country in 2022 (and will likely return in 2023). In 2018, the then-state superintendent of Arizona tried unsuccessfully to replace the state’s standards for history and science with a set developed by Hillsdale. The curriculum’s principles have also been embraced by legislators pushing gag orders in Florida, South Dakota, Virginia, and elsewhere.