TAMPA, Fla. — “Yes, the classical academies are flourishing in the state of Florida, we hope to have many more,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said during his appearance at a leadership conference in Naples earlier this year.
The conference was hosted by Hillsdale College, a small conservative Christian college in Michigan working to expand a classical education curriculum it describes as “instruction in western tradition” with a “firm grounding in civic virtue."
But some education experts describe classical education as conservative, narrowly focused and unabashedly patriotic.
“There's definitely a belief that West European and white forms of knowledge are the highest forms of knowledge,” explained Professor Bruce Fuller of the University of California, Berkeley.
Education Professor Zorka Karanxha at the University of South Florida agreed, explaining why the curriculum is limiting.
“It discourages a focus on racism, it discourages a focus on criticality when it comes to government and U.S. history and it discourages a focus on teaching culturally relevant curriculum,” she said.
Hillsdale’s mission to spread the curriculum through the a network of publicly funded, privately managed charter schools.
Last year, the college’s president, Larry Arnn, talked about what it calls the Barney Charter School Initiative and how Florida is fertile ground for its expansion of new charter schools.
“We got into education reform and founding charter schools and the best place to do it is Florida,” he said during a speech at the college.
To date, Hillsdale’s initiative has assisted in the openings of more classical education charter schools in Florida than any other state nationwide.
From Naples to Jacksonville, Hillsdale currently boasts (7) “member” schools in the state, which means Hillsdale provides each of these charter schools with training for its staff, a curriculum for its students and even on-site visits and consultations on who to hire, according to its website and agreements we obtained.
While Hillsdale’s Florida footprint dates back to 2014, its influence in the Sunshine State has surged under Governor DeSantis and former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. In 2019, Corcoran selected Hillsdale to help revise Florida’s civics standards.
Members of the college also reviewed math textbooks for prohibited topics, including critical race theory, and beginning this summer, the state started offering Florida teachers specialized civics training Hillsdale approved.
“The way they're manipulating the political structure through state governors, I think that's very unique,” said Professor Fuller who has studied charter schools for decades. Fuller said Hillsdale is becoming a public education game changer.
“I’ve never seen a religious-based charter operation be so shrewd politically,” Fuller said.
But a closer look reveals that shrewdness hasn’t always resulted in successful Florida partnerships.
In 2019, Hillsdale severed ties with its first Florida charter school, Mason Classical Academy in Naples. At the time, the local school district and Hillsdale had separately alleged Mason’s board was fraught with mismanagement.
This past April, the college also ended its partnership with one of its newer schools, Tallahassee Classical Academy, which Hillsdale helped open during the pandemic.
“Sometimes families are dysfunctional, have a little bit disagreement, but we don't focus on that,” said the Tallahassee Classical’s Board Chair Barney Bishop, a retired Florida lobbyist.
Bishop wouldn’t elaborate on the details behind its separation from Hillsdale but said the school still has an agreement with the college to use its curriculum. The college, he said, simply no longer offers training, consulting or critiques.
“We were hoping that they would give us not only some constructive criticism, but we were hoping that they would give us some positive things as well. All we ever got was the negative,” Bishop said.
Tallahassee Classical is also among three of Hillsdale’s member charter schools who, last year, earned an overall ‘C’ by Florida’s Department of Education.
“There are a lot of schools that are C's and D's and F's around the state, it hasn't stopped a single parent from coming here to our school,” Bishop said, adding the school’s enrollment went from 354 last year to over 600 at the start of this year.
“I’m not bothered by that at all,” said parent Kim Hawke who, two years ago, decided to pull her then-first grade daughter from traditional public school for Tallahassee Classical’s more conservative approach. She’s also not bothered by the school’s separation from Hillsdale.
“I won’t be naive to say that there isn't a political agenda for pretty much everything in our lives. But we chose to be part of a conservative community, we chose to be part of a classical education. That aligns with our family values,” Hawkes said.
Hillsdale did not return multiple calls and emails seeking an interview for this story. But it’s clear the school’s momentum in Florida is just getting started. Several new classical charter schools with Hillsdale connections are already in the works.
“What would DeSantis say if there was a charter school created just for transgendered kids," Professor Fuller asked. “It would be seen as exclusive and unwelcoming for other kinds of parents. But Hillsdale is doing the same thing on the far religious right spectrum."
Tallahassee Classical’s Barney Bishop disagrees.
“We’re trying to get away from the political movement of public schools who are trying to teach our children a woke political agenda. They started it. If they hadn't started it there wouldn't be a need for conservative schools,” Bishop said.