Hillsdale College is a right-wing conservative Christian college in Michigan hailed by the likes of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who views the school as a model for education nationwide and vows to bring Hillsdale’s values to Florida. In one Florida school district last week, he nearly saw his dream come true.
The Sarasota School Board had considered hiring the newly created Vermilion Education in a consulting capacity, but voted 3-2 against the proposal last Tuesday after critics lambasted the consulting group’s lack of experience, close ties to Hillsdale, and political agenda.
The plan—which was proposed in March by board chair Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of the right-wing book-banning group Moms for Liberty and wife of the state GOP chair—would have cost the school district $28,000 and given Vermilion the job of reviewing and recommending teacher lesson plans, textbooks, and library books. The initial proposal would have also had the newfound consultancy agency sit in on teacher interviews and review district policies and procedures, costing the school district $4,820 a month.
The consultant who would have implemented Ziegler’s plan was Jordan Adams, a former civic education specialist at Hillsdale and founder of Vermilion. Adams was behind Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum, which favored a “patriotic”—that is, whitewashed—teaching of U.S. history.
Hillsdale famously refuses any government funding to maintain its independence from government regulation. Its newsletter Imprimis, which is circulated to millions of Americans, gives a sense of Hillsdale’s politics: It has claimed the Jan. 6 insurrection was a hoax and that immigration is a plot to make whites a minority and to secure a welfare state. Investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce published a three-part series at Salon last year on Hillsdale’s leading role in the national right-wing war on public education.
Hillsdale and Moms for Liberty share a right-wing agenda to impose their conservative values on students. Moms for Liberty has been a part of the right-wing takeover of school boards across the country, the banning of books like a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary, and the ousting of superintendents and educators it sees as roadblocks to its conservative agenda. Like Hillsdale, the group has been praised by DeSantis.
With the board scheduled to vote on the proposed plan last Tuesday, local students and parents staged a protest against Vermilion. Some 80 people lined up to speak at the board meeting, the mass majority of whom urged the board to vote no, according to local news reports. Some community members criticized the agency as too new, noting that it was founded just four months prior. Others questioned the need for a consultant when Sarasota had an A-rated education system and questioned the agency’s political agenda.
In the face of such public pressure, the board voted 3-2 against the measure, but some school board members were open to reconsidering Vermilion’s contract. Sarasota County’s school board, which had a Democratic majority until school board elections last August, now has 4-1 Republican majority, with three members who were backed by both DeSantis and Moms for Liberty. The proposed plan to employ Vermilion was just one of the moves the board has taken to shake up the county’s public schools; in December 2022, it forced out the county’s highly rated superintendent.
While Sarasota schools may have avoided Hillsdale’s influence, other Florida schools have had no option but to engage with Hillsdale activists. After DeSantis took over the New College of Florida and appointed six new members to its board of trustees, his chief of staff said the governor wanted to turn the college into the “Hillsdale of the South.” Among those in charge of implementing those changes is Matthew Spalding, a dean and vice president at Hillsdale.