A Tiny Christian College Is Fueling the Right’s Nationwide War on Public Schools

Costa Mesa’s February 2 mood was more love bomb that fire bomb. It was yet another packed school board meeting with passionate 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 mandatesVaccinations, trans kids on teams of sports players 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 apparent conflict of interest that drew laughter from the crowd. Orange County is more of a purple jurisdiction than a deep-red one these days. However, the board is dominated today by a conservative majority that was elected to power in recent years. thanksAn unprecedented influx of right wing cash.

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.

Hillsdale is a player in an era that has seen book bans and crusades against teaching racism to children, as well as proposals to punish teachers and librarians. It is also a solution for conservatives looking to reclaim an education system they believe was entrusted to liberal interests decades ago. The college has been a key player in promoting a conservative and explicitly Christian reading of American history as well as the U.S. Constitution. It opposes progressive education reforms and contemporary scholarship on inequality. 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 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.

Hillsdale is a key resource as Republicans enter a new phase in their long-term efforts to privatize public schools. 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.

In late January, Tennessee Gov. Republican Bill Lee used his State of the State addressTo 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.”

These connected trends represent a vision of the future if Republicans win their current war against public education. They see war as the way 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 videoThe doctor, Jeff Barke, stood on Riverside’s municipal building steps in May 2020 in green scrubs and a white labcoat and claimed to be speaking for thousands of medical workers who believed that 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. They decided to post the footage to Facebook because it was too large for email.

The video went viral, and Barke began meeting fellow “freedom fighters” around the country. He was a great help 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 callfor reopening the country immediately. As later became clear, America’s Frontline Doctors was organizedIn cooperation with the Trump campaign, and Barke’s supposedly accidental activism was no more organic.

Barke has been involved for years with right-wing politics in Orange County. This area is known for its beaches and upscale suburban sprawl, which has been a central part of American pop culture and is considered to be 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. Jeff Barke and Mari Barke attended the 2016 Republican National Convention as alternates. They wore matching stars-and stripes suits and wore matching stars-and stripes suits. Jeff Barke was an active member of the Los Alamitos School Board for 12 years. He led a successful effort. requireA new course in environmental science should also include dissenting views about climate change.

However, he moved from local activism to national right wing stardom in 2020 as one of most provocative voices about pandemic policies. 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 week. Barke became a combative presence online under the handle @rxforliberty. He called for fast-tracking herd immunity via widespread virus infection and suggested that masking children was child abuse.

Barke pulled out a Sig Sauer pistol in one livestream interview. describingIt is his preferred pandemic protection. He has also compared COVID testing to unnecessary breast biopsies of healthy women.

The Barkes are Jewish. Jeff did a mini-tour of regional megachurches that refused shut down in the early days of the pandemic. He also made friends with a number of prominent evangelical leaders such as Jack Hibbs, Chino megachurch pastor, who is well-known for his infamous remarks about the Barkes. 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).

Jeff Barke was also a strong advocate for his school, and both campaigns seem strongly connected. He pulled out a small pocket version of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to explain to the crowd that they were meant to restrain government, not the people, during his short viral speech in Riverside. 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.”

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 SalonMari Barke stated that she declined the invitation but that she was grateful for her opportunity. election biographyThe committee is one of her volunteer affiliations. Hillsdale was also where Jeff Barke met Mark Meckler, a Tea Party activist and cofounder of Convention of States, a right-wing group that 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 discovered, 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 chestAround $425,000, with more than half of it donated by Charter Public Schools PAC. She also received support from the California Policy Center (CPC), which is a state-level affiliate to the State Policy Network. coalitionMore than 150 right-wing groups promote 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 was involved in local politics for decades. He promoted a number of charter and school privatization initiatives, as well as using his political connections to support the Lincoln Club. 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.”

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. Hillsdale staff and alumni were shuttled back and forth between Hillsdale and Capitol Hill throughout the Trump years. (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, a Churchill scholar from Arkansas, has been the school’s leader for 22 years. He is known for his penchant for folksy and antiquated speech. 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 former 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 cofounder and later president the Claremont Institute. This influential right-wing thinktank has had a long history of success. 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 much more than he could’ve expected.

Hillsdale 2009 hiredGinni Thomas is a right-wing activist who was married to Justice Thomas. She helped the college open a campus in Washington on Capitol Hill across from the Heritage Foundation (where Arnn sits on the board). From that facility, which inspired a 2018 Politico feature entitled “The College that Wants to Take Over Washington,” Hillsdale initially ranA joint fellowship program for senior congressional staff between Heritage and the Federalist Society.

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 seriesWith Arnn, and other Hillsdale faculty members, that now includes hundreds.

Arnn endorsed Trump, along with a number Hillsdale staff members, in 2016. dominated a group endorsement titled “Scholars & Writers for America“) and was on the short list to serve as Trump’s secretary of education. Betsy DeVos, who too has Hillsdale ties, was the new president of course. 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 donationsHillsdale over the years. It has amassed an impressive endowment of over $900 million for a small liberal arts school.

DeVos is philosophically aligned with Hillsdale’s mission as well. She became a mother in 2001. 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 speechDeVos invoked Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, in Hillsdale shortly before the 2020 elections. questionably) to argue that government should have little role in education and parents should be able to direct taxpayer funds to private schools.

Arnn was finally tapped two months later. 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.) President Biden was not present. 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 words 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 notEveryone was happy with the direction Arnn took 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.”

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 reportTorode was drafted less than two weeks following the Jan. 6 attack. 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. The college started building a Center for Faith and Freedom, in 2020, in a replica Monticello mansion. 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. Hillsdale has purchased a large tract of land in California as part of its plans to create an education center. 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 announced that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem offered to build Hillsdale “an entire campus” in that state.