Hillsdale College, one of the nonprofits state lawmakers chose to advise Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on civics education, was somewhat of a mystery when the Legislature pushed through a bill requiring a statewide review of how civics education gets taught.
The small private Christian college in Michigan — considered one of the most conservative in the country — was picked out of thousands of colleges in the nation to be a consultant for Corcoran on civics materials, and it wasn’t clear why.
But there are some connections between Hillsdale and Florida’s charter school movement — and Commissioner Corcoran’s wife, Anne Corcoran.
The Florida Phoenix has asked for comments on whether Commissioner Corcoran – a former Republican Speaker of the Florida House – requested that lawmakers include Hillsdale College in the civics legislation, and whether it’s a conflict of interest for Corcoran to be advised by Hillsdale when his wife has been connected to Hillsdale College.
Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said there is no conflict. Fenske initially said that Anne Corcoran “has never been involved with Hillsdale College,” but later said she would check further.
Hillsdale also has connections with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family helped fund Hillsdale’s endowment, according to the Washington Post. And her brother attended Hillsdale.
Anne Corcoran has been listed as a director and board member of Tallahassee Classical School, a charter school linked to Hillsdale College through a program called the “Barney Charter School Initiative.” The Hillsdale charter project promotes studies in liberal arts and sciences and the “principles of moral character and civic virtue.”
Tallahassee Classical School, like other charters in Florida, is a public school and nonsectarian.
Education spokeswoman Fenske said Anne Corcoran is no longer on the board of Tallahassee Classical. Fenske believes she left in March of 2019, but said she would check further.
Anne Corcoran, an attorney, was listed as a director in the Tallahassee Classical School’s annual report posted Jan. 12, 2018, state records show, and she was listed again as a director in the Jan. 14, 2019 annual report.
The classical school’s opening has been delayed because of facility issues, but it’s scheduled to open in August 2020.
In November 2018, Anne Corcoran and other members of the Tallahassee Classical School team attended a “governing board training at Hillsdale College,” according to the school’s Facebook page, which showed photos of Anne Corcoran with her colleagues at Hillsdale’s campus.
A month later, when Anne Corcoran was still listed as a director at the school, a Facebook post said that Tallahassee Classical had partnered with Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative to provide curriculum design, teacher training, guidance on school culture and other training.
The school posts signs highlighting that Tallahassee Classical is an affiliate of Hillsdale College.
As of today, the charter school’s website still pictures Anne Corcoran as a board member. Board minutes posted online show that she was listed as “director-at-large” at board meetings for several months in 2019, but the records show she was absent. However, minutes from the March 7, 2019 board meeting show that Anne Corcoran was among the “members present,” the records show.
Florida’s civics education legislation — now a law — requires, among other tasks, that all civics instructional materials be reviewed and approved by Education Commissioner Corcoran “in consultation with organizations.”
As the Phoenix reported this week, Corcoran has to make recommendations to improve civics education materials and testing by Dec. 31. By Dec. 31, 2020, the Florida Department of Education also will review statewide academic standards – what students are supposed to know — used for civics courses.
Spokeswoman Fenske said that choosing which organizations would go into the civics legislation was “more of a group discussion,” with lawmakers and the education agency making recommendations.
Initially, only one group was in the civics bill: The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.
The center’s director, Stephen Masyada, said the Joint Center provided a list of civic education organizations that would be helpful in the civics review. That list didn’t include Hillsdale College.
The civics education law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis has become controversial because the out-of-state groups financed by ideological and political-leaning donors were chosen to consult with Corcoran, raising concerns about the potential for fundamental changes in the way civics is taught.
It’s also unclear why Florida needs a review of civics education given that current civics courses are considered nonpartisan and non-ideological.
The instruction covers everything from the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to the three branches of government, political parties and voting, the significance of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, the concepts of domestic and foreign policy, and the principles of markets, banking and the economy.
Another of the advisory groups listed in the Florida’s new law is the Bill of Rights Institute, headquartered outside Washington, D.C. The group was launched in 1999 by the libertarian Koch family and its foundations, which still donate to the nonprofit. The institute once was described in The New Yorker as promoting “a conservative slant on the Constitution.” The institute’s president also taught at Hillsdale College.
In North Carolina in late 2014 and early 2015, the Bill of Rights Institute generated controversy when the state education agency wanted to recommend highly that social studies teachers “use curriculum materials prepared by an institute funded by the conservative Koch family,” according to The News & Observer in Raleigh. The state education agency, at the time, pulled back on the recommendation following public criticism.
Other nonprofit groups chosen to advise the Florida Education Commissioner are: New York City-based Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based iCivics, and the Constitutional Sources Project, based in Washington, D.C.