First came policies that eliminated safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students and restricted racially inclusive reading materials. Then, the Pennridge School Board voted to hire Vermilion Education, a Michigan-based consulting company with limited experience and questionable curriculum standards.
Despite objections from parents, students and teachers, such moves are dominating the public education agenda in this community just north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, now that five of the nine Pennridge School Board members are linked to Moms for Liberty, the far-right so-called parental rights organization.
The Vermilion Education deal with Pennridge appears to be the latest tactic in Moms for Liberty’s efforts to force what many view as anti-inclusive ideals into local public education. Ranking only behind Florida, where Moms for Liberty was founded, Pennsylvania has the second-largest concentration of the organization’s chapters. “Bucks County seems to be the epicenter for where Moms for Liberty took off in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Jenny Stephens, a freelance reporter for the Bucks County Beacon, a local progressive media outlet, told Hatewatch.
Though Vermilion Education is a fairly new company, its connection to Hillsdale College is a primary selling point for the Pennridge board members with ties to Moms for Liberty. Long known for its objectionable education philosophies and affiliation with far-right activists, Hillsdale is a south Michigan-based private, right-wing, Christian college. In 1984, the school began operating on private donations after rejecting federal funds so it could refuse to implement Title IX regulations that prohibit racial and gender discrimination in its educational programs and activities.
Addressing the 2016 graduating class at Hillsdale College, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas warned of an increasingly complex America society that only depletes the benefits of a free society without contributing anything in return. “But this is Hillsdale College, and you are special, that shining city on the hill,” he told the audience. Hillsdale, according to Thomas, is the “clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law” because it understands that liberty precedes government and is not a benefit owed by government.
Hillsdale has prominent anti-inclusive education allies. It has joined forces with the likes of conservative activist Christopher Rufo and former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to consistently undermine public education and promote privatization. It has also welcomed as a speaker Matt Walsh, a well-known anti-LGBTQ+ activist. Given Hillsdale’s reputation and record, the contract with affiliated Vermilion Education and the Pennridge School Board sparked vehement opposition from many local observers.
“Vermilion is a Trojan horse. It is Hillsdale,” Stephens said, “but Hillsdale has become so tainted that no one’s going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s bring that in.”
As in the Pennridge School District, Moms for Liberty-affiliated majorities in school boards are disregarding the expressed concerns of local stakeholders who fear that the parent group’s book bans, anti-inclusion policies and other measures endanger marginalized students and jeopardize the education of all students.
After cutting social studies requirements, shadow banning books, eliminating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students by prohibiting teachers from displaying flags, stickers or signs and implementing policies targeting transgender students, the Pennridge School Board’s decision to approve the Vermilion Education contract could be the tipping point in efforts to turn the schools in their district into mini Hillsdales.
The majority of parents, students and community members do not support the Moms for Liberty agenda, as evidenced through public polling by national organizations. For instance, an NBC News education survey that polled likely midterm voters in seven states including Pennsylvania in May 2022, revealed that over 80% of Americans disagreed with removing from school libraries books that criticize U.S. history, have differing political views, depict slavery or discuss race. The majority also felt that teaching about race gives students a better understanding of what others have experienced.
In the Pennridge School District, efforts to eliminate safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students and remove books including Beloved and A Queer History of the United States for Young People deemed by board members as pornographic have been apparent through policies enacted by the school board.
Not long after Moms for Liberty got its start in 2021, it entered the political arena. The group’s PAC received its first donation when Publix supermarket chain heiress Julie Fancelli, who helped fund the “Stop the Steal” rally ahead of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, gave the group $50,000.
By the 2022 elections, Moms for Liberty deployed its PAC to endorse 500 school board candidates across the country. By the close of the election cycle, the group’s leadership claimed to have “flipped” 17 school boards in their favor.
Immediately after gaining power in elections, Moms for Liberty-majority boards began making sweeping changes. For example, in the Berkeley County School District in South Carolina, the state’s fourth-largest public school district, where Moms for Liberty claims that it “took” six of the total nine seats, the newly sworn-in board voted to fire the district’s superintendent, with only the six Moms for Liberty-endorsed board members voting in favor of the termination. The board also voted to establish a committee to review books and instructional materials, to replace the school board chair with a Moms for Liberty-backed member and to ban critical race theory, which the newly elected chair defined as “a worldview that believes all events and ideas around us in politics, education, entertainment, the media and the workplace and beyond must be explained in terms of racial identities.”
Moms for Liberty praised these changes on social media, posting, “Berkeley County – 6 new board members clean house first night on the job.” Deon Jackson, the ousted superintendent, has since filed a civil lawsuit in South Carolina against the school board members, claiming the Moms for Liberty-backed majority plotted his demise through a number of means, including gross negligence, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
Bridget Ziegler, co-founder of Moms for Liberty and chair of the Sarasota, Florida, school board, was endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and local Proud Boys to win her reelection to the Sarasota school board in August 2022. Earlier this year, she added an agenda item – called the “Vermilion Education brief” – just 24 hours before a scheduled board meeting was slated to meet.
This last-minute addition sparked a firestorm of protests and commentary in the community with many parents, students and citizens speaking out against the proposal to hire the education consulting firm. Paulina Testerman, co-director of Support Our Schools, a Sarasota-based parental advocacy group, spoke at a school board meeting, highlighting the lack of proper public notice, documentation and transparency surrounding the proposed Vermilion Education contract.
“It is important to know the levels of deception that swirled around the Vermilion contract,” Testerman told Hatewatch. “To this day, Ziegler hasn’t provided the sources that she’s legally bound to share. When elected officials are putting politics above the schools’ and students’ best interest, that’s a problem.”
Vermilion Education ties to Hillsdale College
Ziegler apparently had no qualms about the inexperience of Vermilion Education and its ties to Hillsdale College. With her declared interest in bringing Vermilion Education to the Sarasota School District, the months-old company was thrust into the national spotlight.
However, Hillsdale’s leadership was known in local, state and conservative circles. In a 2013 subcommittee hearing on Michigan’s education standards, Hillsdale’s current president, Larry Arnn, recounted learning of concerns from the Michigan Department of Education about Hillsdale’s lack of diversity and a subsequent campus visit, saying: “The State of Michigan sent a group of people down to my campus, with clipboards ... to look at the colors of people’s faces and write down what they saw. We don’t keep records of that information. What were they looking for besides dark ones?”
Arnn served on former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which was apparently established in September 2020 as a response to the 1619 Project, a New York Times journalism project that examines the contributions of Black Americans since the beginning of slavery.
Under Arnn’s leadership, Hillsdale went on to create what it calls the 1776 Curriculum. Jordan Adams, Vermilion Education’s founder and CEO, had a hand in creating it. Adams, a Hillsdale College alum who most recently served as interim director of curriculum for the Hillsdale College K-12 Education Office, has said the 1776 Curriculum is “based off of the curriculum and the type of instruction that students in Hillsdale-affiliated schools receive when it comes to studying American history and civics.” Experts, however, have criticized the curriculum for its lack of accuracy, depth and context on important historical points, including slavery and the Civil War.
Vermilion Education tries Florida
By the time Ziegler proposed that Vermilion Education come to Sarasota County schools, Adams and Hillsdale College already had a strong foothold in Florida.
In 2022, DeSantis was a keynote speaker at the Hillsdale National Leadership conference, which the school claims reaches millions of Americans. The governor praised the college for its network of classical schools in his state. He went on to tout his support for Hillsdale, adding that he would be negatively disposed to hiring a Yale University graduate – despite being a Yale alum himself. Instead, if he received a resume from a Hillsdale College graduate, DeSantis said he’d feel assured that person has “the foundations necessary to be able to be helpful in pursuing conservative policies.”
Arnn further highlighted Hillsdale’s relationship with the Florida governor in a school newsletter. In it, he commended what he considered DeSantis’ political successes, claiming that most of the governor’s victories were “won on the battleground of education.”
Just after DeSantis seized control of New College of Florida, a small, public liberal arts school in Sarasota, appointing six new members to its 13-member board of trustees, the governor’s chief of staff James Uthmeier told the far-right website The Daily Caller, “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”
DeSantis has asked representatives from Hillsdale College to advise on Florida’s public education curriculum several times since 2019, inviting them to work with the state’s Department of Education to review civics education standards as well as math and English curricula. Jordan Adams reviewed textbooks, rejecting dozens that DeSantis alleged included “indoctrinating concepts,” such as critical race theory. When Adams also contributed to the state’s new civics curriculum, teachers raised concerns over what they considered inaccurate history lessons on slavery and the inclusion of Christian nationalist concepts.
In Sarasota when Ziegler presented her “Vermilion Education brief,” at a school board meeting, she offered little information about the newly formed company. She did note that it was the only consulting firm that did not provide diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) services.
Ziegler defended her decision to introduce Vermilion to Sarasota, saying, “Why is it a bad idea to either consider how we can take pieces of that which would align into our mission as a public education institution and that wouldn’t imply any indoctrination of anyone’s ideology but get back to the core classical components of academics.” Such rationale directly aligns with the curriculum of the five Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools in Florida, she added.
From the start, there were red flags about the Vermilion Education proposal and contract, which called for a consulting fee of $125 per hour, plus travel expenses. Adams’ proposal, titled “Education Restored,” began with a letter to the school board, calling on its members to remain part of the right-wing movement against public education. “If you’re reading this, you’re likely already part of one of the greatest reform movements of our lifetime,” Adams wrote in the proposal. “Like all great reform movements, those who have the authority to make a difference must make a difference if their officers are to have any meaning at all. This requires – as you have already demonstrated – great courage on your part, and great sacrifice.”
Adams also proposed a “Character Audit Program” to eliminate discussions of race and gender identity from schools by preventing the spread of “ideologies hostile to shared understandings of right conduct and responsibility, undermining the wishes and efforts of parents to raise upright young men and women.”
The proposed contract between Sarasota School District and Vermilion Education initially included two parts. The first, titled Board Services, would have granted Adams access to school board materials and interviews of candidates for administrative, staff and teaching positions so he could review proposed policies, programs and curricula; advise the board on academic matters; review resumes and remotely attend interviews; review proposed contracts and assist with board communications to the public.
Vermilion Education also proposed conducting a “district improvement study” that would include reviewing textbooks, library lists, sample lesson plans, professional development materials, guidance counseling policies and the collective bargaining agreement, among other district items.
By the time the contract came up for a vote, only the district improvement study portion remained, with no explanation as to why the portion for board services had been excluded. Ultimately, after protests and more than four hours of public comment at a school board meeting on April 18, the board voted 3-2 not to adopt the Vermilion contract. Tim Enos, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty during his campaign, voted against the contract, along with Tom Edwards and Robyn Marinelli. Before casting his vote against the contract, Edwards stated, “If we’re going to be a competitive school district, then let’s do a better job of how we select vendors.”
Just a week after the defeat in Sarasota, a last-minute item showed up on a Pennridge School Board meeting agenda: Vermilion Education contract.
The fox is in the henhouse
In June, when Moms for Liberty held its annual conference in Philadelphia, Adams conducted a session, “The First 100 Days: Getting Flipped School Boards to Take Action,” offering tips on how to push their agenda within the first 100 days of taking office. During his presentation, he cautioned attendees against referring to him as an expert, explaining: “If 2020 has proved anything else it is that expertise is dead in the country. There’s no such thing. That is a label to shut down any type of dialogue and pretend that you can’t use your own brain to figure things out. ... You should be calling yourself a U.S. citizen instead.”
Attendees were given a worksheet to help formulate a timeline on “getting flipped boards to act.” Adams instructed that to get contentious policies approved with minimal objection, school boards should inundate districts with demands and changes, making it difficult for any opponents to keep up. He also told participants: “What I’m bringing to the table here is the inside information. I’ll tell you, in a couple of the boards that this has come up with, and they have a contract with me, the right people are freaking out because the fox is in the henhouse.”
That session was presented just weeks after the Pennridge School Board in Pennsylvania became the first public school district in the country to hire Vermilion Education.
The move was not without controversy. Similar to the introduction of Vermilion in Sarasota, the agenda item was added just 24 hours before the board meeting, catching several members off guard regarding the pending contract. Vermilion was also allowed to circumvent the normal process that allows multiple contractors to do presentations, after which the administration chooses the best-qualified bidder.
In Sarasota, Bridget Ziegler took to social media to express her disappointment with the Sarasota School Board’s failure to approve a Vermilion contract just days after the Pennridge School Board meeting. “WOKE Audit (Vermilion) headed to Pennridge in Pennsylvania,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Should be in Florida, specifically Sarasota. We could have led on this. When a school district rids themselves of any social, political or religious agendas, they remove unnecessary distractions and remain focused on improving distractions for all students.”
Paulina Testerman, from Sarasota’s Support Our Schools, however, who celebrated the defeat of the Vermilion Education contract there, told Hatewatch, “[A contract like] this is very symbolic of the cronyism and indoctrination that we are seeing in Florida.”
As in Florida, the introduction of the Vermilion proposal was met with ire from parents, students, teachers and the community. In an over six-hour long curriculum committee meeting in June that lasted until 1 a.m., Adams made a presentation in which he admitted no experience working in public schools or with Pennsylvania education.
Laura Foster of the RIDGE Network, a group of parents, students and other local citizens working to spotlight issues in the Pennridge School District, told Hatewatch that the board is “trying to turn Pennridge schools into Hillsdale charter schools.”
During a question-and-answer session, a board member pointed out the board’s responsibility to ensure that employees entrusted with developing curriculum have five years of teaching and a principal or supervisory certification. Adams admitted that he lacked these qualifications.
No one spoke in favor of Vermilion Education during the meeting.
There was also a vote scheduled to eliminate the district’s curriculum supervisors, which would give Vermilion control of curriculum without trained, state-qualified specialists in place. This vote has been postponed.
In the end, the Pennridge board approved the open-ended Vermilion contract by a 5-4 vote.
Tales from a ‘flipped’ school board
The Pennridge School Board’s approval of the Vermilion Education contract came as no surprise for some involved with that local school district. Board member Jonathan Russell was endorsed by Moms for Liberty during his campaign, and current board members Ricki Chaikin, Joan Cullen, Jordan Blomgren and Christine Batycki are among the more than 1,000 members of the Bucks County Moms for Liberty private Facebook group.
Since Moms for Liberty-affiliated members joined the school board, they have conducted a master class on the anti-inclusion transformation of a school board, including passing policies that ban books and restrict stickers and flags designating safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community in areas such as restrooms and locker rooms.
Board member Ricki Chaikin has posted anti-trans messages on social media. She also posted a message titled, “The Controversy with Vermilion … and why Republicans should support Jordan Adams,” in which she defended his credentials, gave a history of the board’s relationship with Hillsdale College and the 1776 Curriculum and argued in favor of paying Adams his proposed fee of $125 per hour because the district had previously hired DEI consultants. The Pennridge School Board Facebook page also featured Chaikin’s post.
The board decided to reduce social studies credit requirements to three from four. Just a month later, board member Jordan Blomgren announced her intentions to “overlay” portions of Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum into existing materials. This proved the perfect segue to implementing a contract with Vermilion.
Board president Joan Cullen, who marched in the Jan. 6 protests at the U.S. Capitol, has come under fire for controversial social media posts, including one calling a survivor of the deadly 2018 Parkland school shooting a “tyrant.”
LGBTQ+ students in Pennridge schools have expressed fears that the policies seek to eliminate their identities from schools by eliminating safe spaces and creating an environment that would lead to increased bullying. One told local NPR affiliate WHYY, “When we don’t have a safe space, it’s more of a struggle to be in the learning environment … because you can’t focus on learning when you’re focusing on surviving.”
The Pennridge School Board also voted to disband the district’s DEI committee and its initiatives for the second time in under a year. Cullen, who has publicly denied the existence of systemic racism and injustices, suggested pausing the committee, stating that it had achieved what it was established to do, which was to raise to administrators community concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion. Cullen gave examples of issues raised, including diversity in hiring and curriculum, and stated that those issues would be passed along to the necessary people. The NAACP’s Bucks County chapter strongly condemned the decision to disband the committee.
One of Adams’ first acts as consultant was to help revamp the social studies curriculum, which now lists Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum as a required resource for teachers to use. Many voiced their concerns at both the board curriculum meeting where the changes were introduced and the subsequent August 28th board meeting where the new curriculum was adopted with a 5-4 vote. According to public comments, teachers were troubled by the lack of time to make necessary changes given that the new curriculum was approved on the first day of school. Parents spoke out about the inclusion of the controversial 1776 Curriculum components and Adams’ lack of the required qualifications to write curriculum.
Jenny Stephens warns that the changes in Pennridge could have long-lasting consequences for everyone, not just marginalized citizens. “If they don’t get the education they need, and if they are so cloistered from reality,” Stephens said, “these kids are going to go out into the world very unprepared. And that’s like a big detriment to our society.”
Photo illustration by SPLC (L-R, Christine Batycki, Ricki Chaikin, Jonathan Russell, Jordan Blomgren and Joan Cullen. Source image from pennridge.org)