A national nonprofit recently licensed to provide instructional materials to Montana public schools is sparking controversy elsewhere in the country over its conservative leanings and its products’ handling of topics such as slavery, climate change and colonialism.
According to the Office of Public Instruction, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen signed a textbook license agreement Aug. 2 with Prager University, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 2009 by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager. On its website, PragerU, which is not an accredited educational institution, says it “promotes American values” through the use of its videos and “offers a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media and education.” As of this fall, the organization is also an approved vendor of educational materials in Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
Those approvals have generated criticism from civil rights groups, media watchdogs and educators who claim PragerU is attempting to push a right-wing agenda in public schools, one that critics allege undermines scientific findings and critical thinking. PragerU has done little to hide its aims, with CEO Marissa Streit telling TIME Magazine this fall that the nonprofit’s “kids” division was set up two years ago specifically to offer an alternative to critical race theory — a catch-all phrase used by conservatives to characterize lessons on racism they deem inappropriate or inaccurate.
OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary told Montana Free Press via email this week that Arntzen was connected with PragerU by a Montana parent and spoke with a PragerU representative prior to signing the nonprofit’s license agreement. O’Leary repeatedly wrote that the superintendent “approves textbook dealers, not content,” and when asked about Arntzen’s reaction to widespread criticism of PragerU’s instructional materials as inaccurate and misleading, O’Leary issued this response:
“The Superintendent does not believe that licensing of textbook dealers should be politicized. The Superintendent does not review the content of textbooks, this is left to the local school district when making the decision to use curriculum material from a licensed dealer.”
In a video interview with Streit posted to the organization’s website last month, Arntzen referred to PragerU as “a partner” and said access to its materials would help Montana parents “make sure that there are tools available to enhance learning.”
A publicist representing PragerU told MTFP the organization was not immediately available to answer questions about its content or its activity in Montana schools. According to recent reporting by the Guardian, PragerU has received nearly $200 million in financial support since 2018 from prominent conservative donors including Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, who own ranchland in Fergus County.
After receiving a press release last week from the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling on OPI to reject its “partnership” with PragerU, MTFP reviewed several of the PragerU videos that have come under fire from civil rights groups and historians. Among them is an episode of an animated series about two time-traveling siblings in which an animated Christopher Columbus responds to criticism that he “brought slavery and murder to peaceful people” in the Americas. Columbus replies that “slavery is as old as time” and questions how someone can judge him based on 21st century standards.
“For those in the future to look back and do this is, well, ‘estupido,’” Columbus concludes.
Another installment in the series that’s garnered national pushback features Black author and educator Booker T. Washington describing America as “one of the first places on earth to outlaw slavery” and delivering the message that “future generations are never responsible for the sins of the past.” A separate series of cartoons contains videos challenging modern efforts to mitigate climate change and characterizing British colonial rule over India as having “helped transform the country in many positive ways” including by spreading Christianity and Western values. Both series are part of a division of PragerU branded as “PragerU Kids” and available, for free, through the website.
PragerU also produced a short documentary this year called “Unwoke Inc.,” which spotlights an array of conservative celebrities including 2024 Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, writer and filmmaker Jeremy Boreing and Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac. In a trailer for the film, its host — self-described “leftist turned freethinker” Amala Ekpunobi — promises that “Together we can fight wokeism: in academia, in the culture, in business.”
When Clementine Lindley began looking into PragerU’s content this week, she said, she was “shocked.” Lindley told MTFP that as the mother of an openly gay eighth grader in Billings, she’s already witnessed firsthand how challenging a public school environment can be for queer youth. She referenced one PragerU video framing lessons on masculinity from a purely heterosexual perspective as an example of how the company’s presence in Montana classrooms could exacerbate the issues driving high rates of despair and suicide among LGBTQ students across the country.
“I’m almost at a loss for words, because it’s so counterintuitive to everything I know as a mental health advocate, as someone who understands peace and conflict,” Lindley said, noting that she has a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies and has conducted peer mediation in public schools. “It’s just literally mind-boggling.”
Lindley’s growing apprehension about PragerU’s open door to deal instructional content to Montana public schools was echoed this week by former Democratic Helena legislator Moffie Funk, founder of the political action group Montanans Organized for Education. In a statement to MTFP, Funk described Arntzen’s appearance in a video promoting PragerU Kids as “unfortunate.”
“The superintendent has no authority to approve textbooks, but the video both implies that she does and clearly demonstrates her support,” Funk said. “PragerU is a polarizing institution that is widely discredited.”
Like Lindley and Funk, Jack Kirkley was unfamiliar with the decade-plus-old Prager University until recently. An ornithologist and 36-year veteran biology professor at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Kirkley first heard of the conservative nonprofit in a September e-newsletter from the National Center for Science Education. Kirkley recalled reading a blurb about PragerU’s licensing in Montana and clicking a link that led to its video interview with Arntzen. From there, he said, he began digging through PragerU’s website and was struck by the organization’s stated mission of countering a “woke” agenda in schools.
“I think they’re trying to catch a certain audience that is primed to pick up on these buzzwords like ‘woke’ and say, ‘We have American values that push back against this woke stuff,’” Kirkley said. “That doesn’t resonate with me. That sounds like you’ve got an agenda that you’re trying to deliver, that you’ve got some alternative propaganda that you want out there.”
Kirkley added that some of the animated videos he watched, including one about the Statue of Liberty, seemed fairly innocuous. But others featured characterizations of green energy and climate change that, as an educator and scientist, Kirkley found troubling. He described one that focused on how birds — Kirkley’s professional speciality — are negatively impacted by wind turbines. In his view, the lesson overstated those impacts when compared to the mortality rates caused by roads, cell towers and lead poisoning.
“It’s a sociopolitical spin that they have here, and they don’t hide it. It’s there,” Kirkley said. “How does this get vetted, and how did it reach the point of being approved?”
According to Montana law, the only requirements for obtaining a textbook dealer license have to do with fair pricing of materials. Applicants are required to file a surety bond with the secretary of state’s office as well, at a rate set by the superintendent of public instruction (OPI disclosed that Arntzen set PragerU’s surety bond at $5,000). As long as a dealer meets those criteria, O’Leary told MTFP, the superintendent is required to issue a license.
From there it falls to local school administrators to select which textbooks from what vendors to use — a decision subject to the approval of local school board trustees. Rob Watson, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, said that process is “fairly complex,” and that the adopted material has to meet statewide content standards established by the Board of Public Education. Districts can modify those standards to some degree, he continued, including adopting material that goes “above and beyond” what the state mandates.
“[Districts] have a fairly extensive selection process that includes a review cycle and a period of time where the public can review the resources and provide comment to the board before they adopt,” Watson said, adding he believes the process is “extensive enough” that concerns specific to a particular textbook dealer would be “caught” prior a board approving any content.
Whether any districts will turn to PragerU for content — and what content they express interest in — remains to be seen. Last month, the New Hampshire Board of Education approved a series of PragerU videos on financial literacy called “Cash Course” for remote use and for graduation credit. The approval, obtained in the face of considerable pushback, contrasted with Florida’s blanket greenlight for PragerU Kids videos to be shown in K-12 classrooms. While Lindley personally finds PragerU’s lessons “horrific,” she hopes any Montana schools that do work with the organization find ways to balance its narratives.
“I don’t think it’s bad to know what other people believe and think and are taught. I think it’s part of what teaches us to be thoughtful humans and Americans, and what makes America great is that we can learn all these different sides and make choices,” Lindley said. “But if my kids were to be in a class where PragerU was being taught, the next question I would ask is, ‘What are we doing to teach the counter story? And if they’re not, then I would be up in arms about it.”
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