How a Conservative Christian College is Leading the Fight Against Public EducationBreaking News
tags: conservatism, Hillsdale College, teaching history, 1776 commission
The mood in Costa Mesa on Feb. 2 was more love bomb than fire bomb: yet another school board meeting packed with impassioned 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 mandates, vaccine requirements, trans kids on sports teams or 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 evident conflict of interest that sparked laughter from the crowd.) Although Orange County is more a purple than a deep-red jurisdiction these days, that board is dominated by a conservative majority, swept into power over the last several years thanks to an 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.