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PragerU will be incorporated into Arizona education. What is the organization, and why is the partnership receiving backlash?

The Arizona Department of Education is beginning a partnership with an unaccredited organization which has received backlash in the past for pushing conservative views and inaccurate portrayals of history. 

On Jan. 31, Tom Horne, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, announced that the Arizona Department of Education will be partnering with Prager University Foundation, widely referred to as ‘PragerU,’ and offering their video lessons as educational materials to students. Arizona is the sixth state to enter a partnership with PragerU, following Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and New Hampshire.

But what is the history of PragerU, and how are Arizona politicians reacting to Horne’s push to integrate it with Arizona schools?

PragerU is a conservative non-profit and non-accredited educational organization that creates and shares “free educational content promoting American values” that are marketed as an “alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology.” The organization has received millions of dollars in funds from various conservative donors, including  the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, as well as oil and gas fracking brothers Farris and Dan Wilks. Founded in 2009 by right-wing commentator Dennis Prager, PragerU’s video lessons in the PragerU Kids section cover a variety of topics, ranging from economics to American history. The organization has received backlash due to its stances in its content. Outside of its content made for children, PragerU also produces materials opposing gender affirming health care and denying climate change.

In the PragerU Kids section, animated history videos featuring controversial depictions of historical figures drew criticism. Two notable depictions include those of Christopher Columbus and Frederick Douglass. In the video featuring Columbus, the animated version of the Italian explorer says that “Being taken as a slave is better than being killed,” despite there being no historical record of him making that statement. The animated Columbus then goes on to say that his actions should not be held to modern standards of morality. PragerU CEO Marissa Streit defended this depiction by saying that the statement was “what he was likely going to say” and that it would be lying to say that Columbus would be against slavery. 

The organization’s depiction of Douglass, who was enslaved himself, features him supporting the initial decision to not outlaw slavery in the Constitution due to the decision causing the Southern colonies to agree to join the Union. This depiction also includes a misinterpretation of a quote by Douglass stating that “the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” The PragerU interpretation uses the quote to paint the Constitution in a positive light and to spread the idea that changes to civil rights should be done slowly within the previously established system. The original source of the quote, Douglass’ 1852 Independence Day speech, was, however, a reflection of  the fact that while Independence Day was a day for celebrating freedom granted to white citizens, African Americans were unable to celebrate the day due to the continued enslavement and abuse they were subjected to and that the continuation of the abuse was an inherent misinterpretation of the Constitution.

While the organization’s Director of Outreach Jill Simonian stated that PragerU has various accredited historians and teachers create the content for the videos, neither the website nor the video descriptions on YouTube contain a list of credits nor any form of source list or bibliography, so there is no easily accessible way to find who wrote the script, their qualifications or where they found the information.

Horne stated the goal of including PragerU materials is to give parents and educators a wider range of choices for supplemental materials for their children. While use of the materials will not be mandatory for public school curriculums, they will be available on the Arizona Department of Education’s website for use as supplemental materials at the discretion of parents and schools. Horne continued  his promotion of the PragerU materials by stating that  he believes those he labels  “adversaries,” specifically naming those advocating for education on critical race theory, do not want parents to have choices related to available educational content. Horne also said  he believed it is “unprofessional conduct” for teachers to “push their own ideology” on students, despite later stating he had no evidence of this occurring in any Arizona school. 

His decision to integrate PragerU into schools has both been opposed by various parties. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs said on Jan. 31 when speaking to parents and teachers she had heard nothing about anyone wanting new history materials, and she said she did not think Arizona schools need an “alternative that teaches fake history.” 

On the same day, U.S. Representative Raúl Grijalva released a statement opposing the partnership, calling PragerU’s materials “unaccredited right-wing propaganda.” He said the materials fell in line with the goal of congressional Republicans to “eliminate diverse points of view.”

Beth Lewis, the executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, an organization dedicated to equitable education funding, expressed her disappointment with the decision due to the lack of accreditation. She said the materials were “deeply funded propaganda.”

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