Schools, famously, are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ No. 1 priority; the primary means by which he’s gained his new national profile is by working with the Florida Legislature upend the state’s public school curriculum last year. The changes to Florida’s educational system over the past year have been pretty breathtaking—and it turns out, all the attention-grabbing education bills DeSantis has been passing were years in the making. They’re part of a larger project being driven not just by Florida but by a small liberal arts college in Michigan known as Hillsdale. The Christian school has been described as a “citadel of American conservatism”; Donald Trump has connections there, Ted Cruz and Clarence Thomas have been commencement speakers, and the school has started a series of “leadership seminars” that sound like right-wing TED Talks. Hillsdale is also a champion of what it calls “patriotic education”: When the New York Times’ 1619 Project became a conservative lightning rod, officials at the school worked with the Trump administration to lead what was called the 1776 commission and rebut the project. They then put together a classroom companion titled “the 1776 curriculum.” The connection between Florida’s school laws and Hillsdale’s influence was uncovered by Sommer Brugal, a K–12 education reporter for the Miami Herald. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Brugal about how Florida got here, what Hillsdale has been doing, and whether this is all just beginning. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: It’s not just the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Florida also passed something called the “Stop WOKE Act,” which bans the teaching of “critical race theory.” DeSantis and his commissioner of education now exert more control over the state’s curriculum and textbooks too.
Sommer Brugal: It did feel like all of a sudden education was the No. 1 priority in Tallahassee. You had to really look back and say, did all these things come out of nowhere or has there been a growing effort to shape and reform and, frankly, control how public education works in this state? These bills are not singular efforts—they’re part of this larger effort and end goal to reshape public education in Florida.
Do you know when Ron DeSantis first reached out to Hillsdale or anyone associated with the college?
At the time, DeSantis was in the House of Representatives.
Yeah, and that just goes to show that while their relationship hasn’t been so public, it definitely dates back a number of years. One story we did includes the president of the college calling DeSantis one of the most important people living, that “we need him,” that the most important work is ahead of him. DeSantis looks to Hillsdale and says, “I know they have the foundations necessary to be able to be helpful in pursuing conservative policies.” That quote is specific to how, when he sees a résumé from Hillsdale, he wants to get that person to work for him or to be on the conservative side of policymaking.
Can you lay out how Hillsdale has sort of embedded itself in state school curricula in Florida, maybe other places as well?
There was actually a bill that gave Hillsdale, essentially, the authority or the ability to help write laws that affected curricula in Florida. In 2019, Florida approved a law that would allow the college and a few other groups to help the state rework its civic standards. We had a number of teachers and educators reach out and raise concerns about the infusion of these conservative ideas and the emphasis on Christian ideas and Christianity as a whole.
One thing the governor and his commissioner of education had prioritized was textbook negotiations. They’d said textbook publishers were “infested with liberals.” So when the state started rejecting math books earlier this year, you filed a request to see what kinds of criteria reviewers were using, and got 6,000 pages of documents.
There were about 120 math textbook reviewers from across the state. We found that only three of those reviewers said there were issues that violated state rules—regarding “critical race theory” and social emotional learning—in just four math textbooks.
Who are the people raising red flags about math textbooks in the first place?
That’s interesting because it does bring it back to Hillsdale. Two of them are affiliated with the college: One was a sophomore studying politics, another was a civics education specialist at the college. The third was a Florida parent who’s part of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for Liberty, the group that’s dedicated to “parental rights” in schools and very much aligned with conservative politics in the state.
What are some of the objections they had to language in a math textbook, and how did they relate to topics like critical race theory?
One of the individuals from Hillsdale College said that some material could violate the state’s rule that prohibits ideas arguing that racism is embedded in society, because some of the examples talked about racial profiling and policing or the idea of discrimination in magnet school admissions.
How much weight do their objections carry?
Well, given that the state did reject the books, it seems their reviews were given more weight than the ones that came from math teachers. We also learned there was a group of reviewers who were tasked with looking specifically for “prohibited topics” such as critical race theory. We learned those reviewers specifically were paid more to do that job than the reviewers who were tasked with simply reviewing regular math questions and prompts. We have yet to receive a response as to why there was that discrepancy between the payouts the individuals received.
You also chronicled how Florida’s started up this new civics education program, which is deeply informed by curricula that have been developed at Hillsdale. I know teachers are beginning to get some training. What have you learned from them?
The issue raised was that there was this push for, or overarching theme of, teaching in a very strong Christian fundamentalist way, as well as this idea of whitewashing history. This seemed, to the teachers, a fundamental shift in what was being emphasized and what should be minimized. There was a repetition throughout these sessions that Jesus Christ and the Bible have the greatest influence on the country’s foundation, and that was something that should be embedded throughout a public school education.
There is a concern among longtime teachers about how all of this will affect early-career teachers. Someone who is a veteran teacher—who has a good relationship with their principal, who is confident in their abilities, who’s confident in their protections with the union—might not change how they’re approaching what they teach. On the flip side, you have early-career teachers who may be little more wary of kind of treading into that space: Is this going to get me fired? Is this going to get me into a lawsuit if I upset a student or make them feel uncomfortable? If this is the new generation of teachers and this is what they’re told to teach, what does that mean for our students, for the education our students get around civics and about the true history of this country? That idea and that concern expands to every topic.
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Update, Sept. 8, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between Hillsdale and the 1776 commission.