In July, Florida became the first state to allow schools to incorporate instructional videos with a conservative viewpoint from vendor PragerU into their classroom materials.
Oklahoma and Montana rapidly followed. New Hampshire in September approved the use of online PragerU videos to satisfy financial literacy requirements in public schools. PragerU and one state education board member announced it was on the approved vendor list in Texas as well, but other state education officials denied it.
The growing movement concerns many researchers and scholars, who say the videos share misinformation and who worry that it may set a precedent for allowing other such distorted content into public schools.
The videos are available free of charge for any classroom. Despite its name, PragerU is not a university. It is a conservative nonprofit that produces short videos on historical, economic and climate topics. The organization, formally the Prager University Foundation but known as PragerU, is founded and run by conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager and funded by a number of like-minded philanthropists. PragerU touts its conservative view as a “free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.” But critics say it distorts science and whitewashes unpleasant aspects of historical events.
In a fundraising plea in his organization’s 2023 biannual report, Prager wrote: “Do you think the left is scaling back? You know the answer. They will use our nation’s problems to push for more government control. They are following the Marxist playbook we are well familiar with. The left is a force for chaos.” He then said PragerU is expanding to fight that narrative.
At a Moms for Liberty convention in Philadelphia in June, people demonstrating against the conservative parents’ group accused him of “indoctrinating children.” Prager didn’t deny it. “All I heard was, ‘Well, because you indoctrinate kids.’ Which is true, we bring doctrines to children. But what is the bad of our indoctrination?” he said.
The organization markets kids videos in subject areas such as economics, character development and Judeo-Christian values. A PragerU video in its history series, in which two modern-day animated kids, Leo and Layla, travel back in time to talk to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, has come under some of the harshest criticism from historians and academics.
The video suggests that Douglass, who had been enslaved, believed that the founders’ decision not to abolish slavery in the U.S. Constitution was worth it because it helped convince the Southern colonies to join the Union. “Our system is wonderful, and the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. We just need to convince enough Americans to be true to it,” he says.
The “glorious liberty document” is taken out of context. It comes from Douglass’ 1852 speech on the Fourth of July, in which he also says Black Americans like himself “are not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
It is this sort of cherry-picking that has led scholars to say that the PragerU videos are slanted and incomplete.
The video is an “appalling” misuse of Douglass and mischaracterizes his role in U.S. history, Andrew Hartman, a history professor at Illinois State University, told Education Week.
Later in the video, the animated Douglass criticizes fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who burned a copy of the Constitution because it didn’t outlaw slavery. The Douglass character tells Leo and Layla that “radical” behavior like Garrison’s is out of line, and working within the system is a better way to effect change. In a veiled reference to modern-day protest movements, the kids in the video respond with: “We’ve got that type in our time,” followed by an exchange about supporting the U.S. government.
According to the PragerU Kids website, Leo and Layla’s historic time travel adventures, which include travels to meet biblical characters, are meant for third to fifth graders. The Around the World series is meant for grades six and up.
Another animated PragerU video, “Florian Feeds the World,” features a Dutch farm boy who fears that government regulations designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will destroy his way of life. And one called “Mateo Backs the Blue,” starring a Hispanic boy in Los Angeles, criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement. Both are part of the Around the World series.
“The Prager videos are flag-waving tripe,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “The one where they have [a cartoon] Frederick Douglass talking about slavery is highly distorted.”
“They are highly inaccurate,” Zimmerman added. “They paint a story of unbending liberty and freedom providentially inspired from beginning to end.”
Zimmerman said he is not out to censor the videos, but that they shouldn’t be incorporated into schools’ curricula. “This isn’t an issue of free speech. Everyone is free to look at these videos. I’m not saying they should be prohibited in any way. But they should not be embraced by school districts.”
PragerU’s website also includes videos of its news programs, talk shows and short documentaries that express a point of view on hot-button social issues. “Detrans: The Dangers of Gender Affirming Care” is one. It shows a person, Daisy Strongin, who became a trans man but then regretted it. It also shows people saying that gender-affirming procedures are “barbaric pseudo-science,” a view at odds with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association.
The Florida Department of Education approved the use of PragerU videos in classrooms across the state.
The agency “reviewed PragerU Kids and determined the material aligns to Florida’s revised civics and government standards,” Cassie Palelis, deputy director of communications for the department, said in an email to Stateline.
Those standards are very broad, requiring teachers, for example, to “review causes and consequences of the Civil War.”
“PragerU Kids is no different than many other resources, which can be used as supplemental materials in Florida schools at district discretion,” Palelis wrote.
In New Hampshire, the State Board of Education unanimously agreed to allow high school students to use PragerU courses to satisfy a financial literacy requirement.
The series of 15 five-minute videos includes sessions on pay stubs and taxes; money management and budgeting; credit, debit and debt management; borrowing, student loans and credit and debit cards; and videos on investing.
A video on taxes shows young people screaming, wincing and groaning every time it’s explained that taxes are taken out of a paycheck to pay for things such as the military, roads, fire and police. The video ends with the statement that taxes are an “unavoidable and frustrating fact of life.”
While not overtly political, the videos are simplistic and don’t give students the depth of knowledge they need to handle finances, said Micaela Demeter, a member of the Dover School Board in New Hampshire, who testified at a public hearing in mid-September against the use of the PragerU videos.
“I think financial literacy is an essential human skill,” she told Stateline in a phone interview, while underscoring that her views were her own and she was not speaking for the Dover board. “But I do not believe what PragerU is putting out is sufficient. It’s ‘edu-tainment.’ It is not the caliber that New Hampshire students or any students need.”
She added that her larger concern is “that this is just the foot in the door for PragerU,” echoing several others who testified at the three-hour hearing.
She said she believes that PragerU is looking at the financial literacy curriculum as “the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship.”
“It is hyperpartisan and that does not belong … in any district in New Hampshire,” Demeter said.
Stateline tried repeatedly for comment from PragerU, but the organization did not answer requests nor respond to emailed questions.
Adrienne McCarthy, an academic researcher within the Kansas State University College of Education and co-author of a study on PragerU, said in a phone interview that while she agrees financial literacy should be taught, “why use a non-credentialed organization with a clear agenda to be in part of your curriculum?”
“By adopting any part of the curriculum, you are providing them with a sense of credentials and authority on the matter,” she said. “The recommendation by the school board means this is a credible source.”
She said the financial videos point out how “taxes are a ball and chain, and just state abuse, rather than looking at why taxes are used as they are.”
PragerU solicits contributions at the end of some of its videos. The organization did not list its contributors on its nonprofit tax form, saying the information was “restricted.” But McCarthy and media reports said contributors include Dan and Farris Wilks, who made their fortune by founding an oil and gas hydraulic fracturing company, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an organization that supports conservative policy priorities such as the “teaching of American exceptionalism.”
In September, PragerU posted a video featuring CEO Marissa Streit and Julie Pickren, a member of the Texas State Board of Education, announcing that the company is “now in Texas,” saying that “children in thousands of K-12 Texas schools now have the opportunity to learn from PragerU’s wholesome, patriotic, and age-appropriate content.” But after numerous news articles questioning whether the state education board had approved the platform, Pickren posted a clarification on Facebook, saying that PragerU had been “placed on the Comptroller’s master bidder list” to be allowed to bid on contracts with Texas schools.
However, a search of the site did not show Prager as one of the bidders, and Jake Kobersky, director of media relations for the Texas Education Agency, said in an email to Stateline that PragerU “has not been approved by either the Texas State Board of Education or the Texas Education Agency as a curriculum vendor and is not included on any supplementary curriculum lists.”
Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, also appeared in a Prager video announcing her state’s partnership with the organization. PragerU is listed as a “bonded textbook dealer” on a Montana state website. Arntzen said the PragerU videos would provide an opportunity to “enhance learning, wherever learning takes place,” at home or at school.
In September, the Oklahoma Department of Education launched its partnership with PragerU Kids. State Superintendent Ryan Walters, in an announcement, said the relationship “will help ensure high quality materials rich in American history and values will be available to our teachers and students.”
The next month, the nonprofit advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State announced it is looking into both Oklahoma’s and Florida’s use of the videos, saying they promote religion and particularly Christianity.
“Public schools are the building blocks of our democracy. We owe it to our children to ensure their public schools provide a high-quality education that is free from religious coercion and rooted in facts, not theology or political ideology,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in announcing the effort.
The group particularly pointed to a cartoon video about George Washington, in which the first president is depicted as saying that “having a religious and moral population is important for a healthy republic.”
–Elaine Povich, Stateline