With only 1,500 students on a small-town campus in southern Michigan, Hillsdale College is far from the power corridors of government and top-ranked universities.
But it has outsize influence in the conservative world, with strong ties to the Washington elite. Republican leaders frequently visit, and Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the 2016 commencement address, calling Hillsdale a “shining city on a hill” for its devotion to “liberty as an antecedent of government, not a benefit from government.”
Now the college is making new efforts to reach beyond its campus, this time with an even younger audience. The college is fighting what it calls “progressive” and “leftist academics” by expanding its footprint in the charter school world, pushing the boundaries on the use of taxpayer money for politically tinged education.
Hillsdale has ambitious plans to add to its network of classical public charter schools, which focus on “the centrality of the Western tradition.” And Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee recently invited the college to start 50 schools using public funds, including $32 million set aside for charter facilities. Hillsdale’s network currently includes 24 schools in 13 states.
1776 Curriculum,” which sets out to portray America as “an exceptionally good country.” During a time when education has become inflamed by divisive cultural debates, Hillsdale has been criticized for its glossy spin on American history as well as its ideological tilt on topics like affirmative action. Educators and historians have also raised questions about other instruction at Hillsdale’s charter schools, citing their negative take on the New Deal and the Great Society and cursory presentation of global warming.
Mr. Lee, a Republican, sees his new charter school expansion as part of an effort to develop what he called “informed patriotism” in Tennessee students.
“For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard-bearer in quality curriculum and in the responsibility of preserving American liberty,” Mr. Lee told lawmakers recently. “I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee.”
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, have been more commonly promoted as alternatives to low-performing schools in urban centers. In Tennessee, they have been clustered in the state’s four biggest cities, where like other charters, they have been criticized for siphoning money and students out of more traditional public schools.
Mr. Lee’s plan envisions an expansion into suburban and rural areas where, like many Hillsdale charter schools, they would most likely enroll children who are whiter and more affluent than the average charter school pupil.
the college’s Washington program.
Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses
The college accepts no state or federal funding, including no student grants or loans, allowing it to avoid some government oversight, such as compliance with federal Title IX rules governing sexual discrimination.
Instead, it relies partly on donations from conservative benefactors that are fueled by aggressive fund-raising campaigns, including on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program before he died, and in Hillsdale’s widely circulated digest, Imprimis, which is known for provocative articles — including a 2017 piece in which President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was called “a hero to populist conservatives around the world.”
In a recent fund-raising appeal, Hillsdale pleaded for $17.76 to help counter “leftist” academics teaching a “biased and distorted” view of American history. The pitch cited The New York Times’s 1619 project — which argues that slavery and white supremacy are dominant themes in American history — as an example of false teaching in schools.