In August, the Prager University Foundation, a right-wing media organization that describes itself as “the world’s leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds,” was designated as an official vendor to the Florida Department of Education, and approved for use in classrooms. The move alarmed many parents and educators given that PragerU, founded by radio host Dennis Prager, is an unaccredited, non-academic institution dedicated to promoting conservative social and political views many feel are ahistorical and anti-scientific.
The group is now looking to repeat its triumph in Florida across the country. It’s already having some success.
On Thursday, the New Hampshire Board of Education voted unanimously to approve an online PragerU “Cash Course” for use in the state’s remote Learn Everywhere program. Students who take the course, which consists of 15 five-minute videos, would be able to earn graduation credit towards the state’s financial literacy education requirement.
The board’s vote came in the face of intense public opposition, with parents, teachers, school administrators, and even a pastor raising concerns during the hearing about the academic merits of the course, the lack of teacher involvement in the review process, and the risks of allowing PragerU to gain a foothold within the state.
They were dismissed by the conservative board, whose members were appointed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu. Board member Ryan Terrell described the opposition as an attack on “choice” by individuals “mobilized by political organizations” to demonize conservative ideology. Almost immediately after the hearing, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut appeared in a video alongside PragerU CEO Marissa Streit, who called the vote a “victory for America,” and crowed that the partnership would mean “no more gaslighting” of parents about their child’s education. PragerU’s official Twitter account later trolled a New Hampshire lawmaker who expressed disappointment in the board’s decision.
So far, a public debate on PragerU’s approval has been an exception to their standard mode of operation, but the hearing in New Hampshire and the events leading up to it are still emblematic of PragerU’s expansion strategy. The organization has sought rubber stamps by courting members of conservative administrations who in turn work to push through approvals. Any authorization, however minimal, is then marketed as a sweeping endorsement of their content and mission, boosting their credibility.
The Ron DeSantis administration, which has prioritized infusing schools with right-wing ideology, was certainly accommodating in Florida. The push in New Hampshire was backed by Edelblut and board Chair Andrew Cline, who also serves as president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a conservative free-market think tank. Earlier this month in Oklahoma, culture warring Republican superintendent Ryan Walters announced a “partnership” with PragerU, without subjecting the materials to a state curriculum review. In Texas, where school board members are elected, the organization has been making overtures to Republican members of the board and engaged in deceptive practices to suggest their materials have received state approval.
In each of these states, concerns have been raised — and often ignored — over PragerU’s content. “[They’re] notorious for having ultra-conservative and highly ideological views on everything from climate change, to racism, to slavery, [and] anti-LGBTQ stances,” Matt Wilhelm, the Democratic leader of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, tells Rolling Stone. “Obviously, we’ve got concerns about PragerU and their reputation threatening the integrity of public education in the state of New Hampshire.”
Lowlights of PragerU’s programming include comparing climate change denialism to the Polish opposition against the Nazis; a cartoon Booker T. Washington reassuring a pair of time-traveling cartoon children that slavery was “a reality everywhere in the world”; and a pair of videos titled “How to Embrace Your Masculinity” and “How to Embrace Your Femininity” that advise young men to seek financial independence, set career goals, and become critical thinkers, and young women to “make yourself pretty,” “embrace the idea of being a wife and a mother,” and “try smiling.”
In Oklahoma, school districts protested their superintendent’s approval of PragerU by forcefully declaring that the organization’s content does not align with their established educational standards. Various districts told OKC Fox25 that they had no plans to allow Prager’s content to actually be used in classrooms, as it had not undergone review in accordance with Oklahoma Academic Standards.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Oklahoma City Public Schools, which serves over 30,000 students in the Oklahoma City area, wrote that “the endorsement of PragerU by our State Superintendent doesn’t change anything we are doing in the classroom. We trust our teachers to do everything they can to help our students grow. Our instructional staff uses the Oklahoma Academic Standards and we believe that our teachers are the experts. We also trust that they will use both curriculum resources provided to them by our district and any other appropriate supplemental materials needed to support student growth.”
Opponents in New Hampshire went so far as to argue that PragerU’s branding as a “university” constitutes a violation of consumer protection laws. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cinde Warmington called for the state’s Republican Attorney General John Formella to review if PragerU violated New Hampshire laws prohibiting the use of the terms “‘junior college’ or ‘college’ or ‘university’ […] or descriptive matter tending to designate that it is an institution of higher learning,” by organizations if they are not accredited as such.
Formella found that since PragerU was not incorporated in New Hampshire, the statute did not apply to them. “That just completely avoids the question of [PragerU changing] from being just this online presence in our state, a presence out there on the internet to something that is approved by our Board of Education,” Warmington tells Rolling Stone. “PragerU truly just has no place in our schools,” she adds. “That’s really what I’m hearing all across the district.”
PragerU has taken advantage of conservatives occupying key roles in state administrations, while further pushing its agenda through deceptive marketing practices. This is particularly true in Texas.
Last month, Marrisa Streit, PragerU’s CEO, posted a video on Twitter featuring Republican Texas school board member Julie Pickren. The video was captioned “Texas is the latest state to welcome our PragerU Kids educational initiative into their schools,” and in it Pickren gleefully affirms that “we are definitely ready to welcome PragerU into the great state of Texas.” Streit adds that the team at PragerU had been “working closely with all of you out there in Texas” on supplementary material for the state’s new curriculum guidelines.
The video drew immediate backlash because — according to the Texas Education Agency and the state’s school board — no materials from PragerU have been presented, reviewed, or approved for classroom use. The state comptroller’s office explained to The Dallas Morning News the following day that the organization had “merely registered on the Centralized Master Bidders List,” a process that requires no more approval than paying a $70 registration fee.
“No one from PragerU has presented to the State Board of Education or has contacted me, as chair of the State Board of Education, to discuss any working relationship,” School Board Chair Keven Ellis, a Republican, told the Dallas Morning News. “The SBOE has not received any request from PragerU to be approved as an education vendor.”
Nevertheless, the organization’s website boldly declares that “PragerU is Now in Texas!” (PragerU did not immediately respond to an email about their practices in Texas.)
Staci Childs, a Democratic member of the board representing the Houston area, tells Rolling Stone that Pickren had undermined the board of education’s processes when she said the state was ready to approve PragerU despite failing to converse with other members of the board. “I think even some of her other conservative members weren’t on board with that,” Childs says.
“I get emails every day from people that vehemently oppose this curriculum coming to Texas,” Childs adds. “When [the video of Pickren] went viral everyone was like ‘Wait, wait, wait, is this actually happening? And I was like ‘Hold on, hold on, this hasn’t even been brought before to vote on yet.’ But parents are outraged over this.”
Childs, who is Black, has repeatedly raised concerns about the misrepresentations regarding slavery featured in various PragerU videos. In her view, states that have approved their materials for classroom use have not engaged in “serious vetting” of the content.
“There is truth about history,” she says. “ While it may be uncomfortable, and in some instances, painful, it helps all students, no matter their creed … When I grew up, I felt like I learned a good bit about history. It wasn’t necessarily whitewashed and it wasn’t necessarily sugarcoated, and it was sometimes painful and hurtful. But when I saw from what we’ve come, and what my ancestors have accomplished, Black Americans, it made me that much more resilient, and it made me want to be a part of the civic process even more. This is actually, when I say this, I mean learning the truth about history, not PragerU.”
As a result of her opposition to PragerU’s content, Childs, who produces music and raps as a hobby, was attacked online by one of the organization’s hosts, CJ Pearson. Pearson accused Childs of hypocrisy in deeming PragerU’s learning materials “inappropriate.”
However Childs, unlike PragerU, is not actively working to have her entertainment content approved for use in classrooms.
PragerU’s efforts in Texas — which has the second-largest K-12 student population in the country behind California — is a reminder of the scope of its crusade to overhaul America’s education system in its image. The fact that it was able to score a win in relatively Democratic New Hampshire despite a fierce and variegated opposition from inside and outside of government is a reminder that this crusade should be taken seriously.
“The state of New Hampshire partnering with PragerU, pushing out and normalizing content with the Prager brand, just opens up a Pandora’s box,” said Wilhelm, the state’s Democratic leader. “It provides a gateway to ideological indoctrinating right-wing content, masquerading as education.”