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What does it mean for Oklahoma to partner with PragerU?

PragerU's "Leo & Layla Meet Christopher Columbus."
PragerU's "Leo & Layla Meet Christopher Columbus."

Earlier this month, State Superintendent Ryan Walters announced a partnership with conservative nonprofit media group, PragerU.

Existing PragerU Kids content now populates the state’s social studies website, and Walters says PragerU and the State Department of Education are collaborating on an Oklahoma-specific curriculum. Since Walters’ announcement — which made national news — large schools around the state responded they would not be adopting the curriculum.

According to PragerU’s website, it’s an approved vendor/education partner in Florida, Texas, Montana, and now, Oklahoma. In New Hampshire, students can earn high school credit for completing its financial literacy course.

So what is PragerU? StateImpact spoke with parents, teachers, legislators and Walters to find out. PragerU was also sent a list of questions it did not return before publication.

Despite its name, PragerU is not a university or academic institution, and it cannot confer degrees or diplomas. It was created in part by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager. PragerU Kids is a series of videos and materials like lesson plans and worksheets aimed at elementary students.

PragerU Kids’ videos are high quality, polished productions, usually featuring kid-friendly animation or live action skits. Each video costsbetween $25,000-30,000 to make.

As for philosophy, PragerU says its mission is to counter “the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media and education.”

Critics say PragerU videos often create narratives with an agenda — an issue Dennis Prager himself embraces. He told a Moms for Liberty audience earlier this year that allegations of PragerU content indoctrinating children are “true” and “very fair,” and asked the crowd, “But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”

‘What is the bad of our indoctrination?’: Parents respond

Riley Kern is a Tulsa-area father of three and lawyer who grew up in Oklahoma. He said Walters’ campaign to rid schools of “left-wing indoctrination” is undermined by pushing PragerU materials, and to the extent that all curriculum is somewhat “ideological and values-based,” he said instead of PragerU, he wants his kids to learn values “more consistent with the kind of society we want to build.”

“What frustrates me is the hypocrisy that Walters — and his supporters and others who want to see PragerU and that kind of curriculum introduced — want to pretend as if it is not ideologically based and it is not targeting children, that it is not a form of indoctrination. That it is not introducing a very particular value system into the curriculum,” Kern said.

Walters responded in an interview to PragerU materials being seen as a double standard amid a conservative outcry of leftist indoctrination. Does he acknowledge that PragerU leans conservative?

“No,” Walters said. “I think that it is a focus on American history through the foundational principles the country was created on.”

Kern said PragerU Kids videos, like the one on Christopher Columbus, illustrate how framing certain history in a seemingly innocuous context is not just disingenuous, but irresponsible.

In the Columbus video, two children time travel to speak with Columbus after having a “weird” Christopher Columbus Day at school, having heard opposite narratives of Columbus — either that he brought the evils of slavery and disease to the Americas, or that he discovered new land and spread Christianity.

Columbus warns the children not to judge the actions of the past through the eyes of modernity, making the case that slavery was rampant in many parts of the world at the time.

“Slavery is as old as time,” the Columbus character says. “And it’s taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left. Being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no? I don’t see the problem.”

Kern says downplaying the certain terrors of history amounts to “weaponiz[ing] the idea that there’s any sense in which privilege puts upon us the responsibility to help us do better next time.”

“The rest of the video goes on to sort of help the white children that are hearing Columbus tell this story feel that they have no real responsibility to address any kind of historical inequality that may have come from that ‘very normal experience’ of slavery,” Kern said. “And that any attempt of anyone to make them feel like they should somehow view their privilege that resulted from that and take responsibility for creating a more equitable world or nudging the world toward justice, is just trying to make them feel guilty about not being slaves themselves.”

Melissa Rosenfelt is a mother of two, a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and has lived in Oklahoma for her whole life. She authored an open letter to her children’s school district, Shawnee Public Schools, imploring them to “fully reject the introduction of indoctrination [Walters] is imposing upon Oklahoma children.”

Rosenfelt also points to the Columbus video, saying it directly harms Indigenous people by not accurately representing the horrors that occurred, and it celebrates a man at the helm of those horrors.

In the video, Columbus calls the people he first meets in the Americas, the Taíno, “peaceful, curious, and really helpful.” He says he ordered his men to “treat them well.”

They did not.

In reality, Columbus saw the Taíno as “good servants,” who would eventually be removed from their homes to work in gold mines and plantations, keeping them from cultivating enough agriculture for themselves to live. According to the Smithsonian, many Taíno even committed suicide to avoid subjugation.

Columbus and his men shipped Taíno as slaves to Europe and “gave” young Indigenous girls to men for sex slavery. Indigenous people were raped, murdered, mutilated, subjugated and exported. Four years after Columbus’ arrival, a third of the Taíno had already been wiped out. Today, very few Taíno remain.

That part of history, Rosenfelt says, is left out of the conversation, replaced with more palatable versions.

“Putting it in animated form makes it easier to swallow. It makes it appear harmless. But actually, that is a form of violence,” Rosenfelt said. “There’s no sense in teaching our children half-truths.”

Asked when is age-appropriate for students to learn the rest of history, or if they should learn it at all, Walters said the intention of the curriculum is to view history “as it occurred,” but not to “preload a child and say, look, from a left wing view, this person is bad because we’re looking at him from this position.”

“But what so many leftists want to do, is they create kind of this, just embedded victimhood in all aspects of history,” Walters said. “It does start with an honest view that has to be void of left-wing indoctrination, that comes with a view of, ‘I really want to understand this individual in the context [of] the time they lived, before we jump into that type of view.”

But Rosenfelt says frontloading historical events with rose-colored glasses and giving students “bits and pieces” of history does a disservice to them.

“It’s not about making anyone feel bad for what their people did, you know, years back,” Rosenfelt said. “It’s giving them context of how we came to society today. We wouldn’t be here today if these things in history didn’t happen.”

PragerU Kids produces more than just history videos. For instance, in its “Life Lessons” video series, critics point out the stark differences between the focus of “How to Embrace Your Masculinity” and “How to Embrace Your Femininity.” Embracing masculinity, the video says, means being financially independent and courageous, and using your strength for good.

Embracing femininity, however, is markedly different:

“One of the most beautiful things God has created is a woman’s smile,” a man in the video says. “It can fill a room with energy and joy. Just try smiling and see how it affects the people around you. (...) Embrace your artistic side and the joy of making things beautiful. Make your house a home, and along the way, stay grateful and encouraging.”

Kern says as the father of a 13-year-old girl, the video “leans into the most awful stereotypes used to make women feel uncomfortable in many situations.”

“Beyond that, as the father of a son, I find the video to be ridiculous,” Kern said. “On another front, are we trying to claim that smiling is feminine? That my son should not smile? That if he does, he’s not performing his masculinity well?”

He also sees these videos instructing children on masculinity and femininity as the “perfect example of hypocrisy at work here.”

“The people who are trying to introduce this material claim that it’s inappropriate to talk to children about gender ideology,” Kern said. “And this is exactly what this video is. It’s just that it’s an ideology that they find acceptable because it supports the status quo and the norms. It justifies the trans panic. It justifies ignoring the fact that same-sex households exist.”

The future of PragerU in Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s partnership with PragerU doesn’t cost the state anything. But Walters said he wasn’t sure if the state may pay for the Oklahoma-specific curriculum.

“We’re having those conversations, I’m not sure where that’ll lead,” Walters said. “We’ll see what the products are and what kind of impact they have. (...) So we’re continuing to go down that list with them to say, ‘Hey, what is the cost? What is the [return on investment] of the programs?”

PragerU materials are supplementary, not mandatory. But when asked, Walters didn’t deny the forthcoming Oklahoma-specific curriculum could be mandatory in the future.

“Right now, we’re just really focused on giving teachers access to high-quality materials,” Walters said.

Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa), who was a teacher and administrator, says she’s troubled by the thought of PragerU in Oklahoma classrooms. After all, Oklahoma has a scrupulous process for determining what’s in its social studies curriculum. And Provenzano says Prager U wouldn’t pass muster.

“Those standards were developed by Oklahoma teachers selected by the State Department of Education to pick curriculum and draft curriculum, and a lot of effort was put into those things,” Provenzano said. “And to go directly against that is very concerning, and no truly compelling rationale was given as to why we are doing this.”

Provenzano said there are ways for the curriculum to become mandatory. A legislator could write it into a bill, or the department of education could propose a rule change.

Every legislative session, the Administrative Rules Committee — which Provenzano sits on — approves or denies rule changes put forward by different agencies, like the department of education. She said, for example, the department could put into its rules proposal a generic description of the types of curriculum offered by PragerU. If the legislature approves them, it could shore up a backdoor path to requiring PragerU curriculum.

“I do think the effort will be made to make it mandatory,” Provenzano said.

But Provenzano raises another issue: HB 1775, the law that bans certain classroom discussions of race and gender that could make students uncomfortable.

“I would counter mandating a particular curriculum with the fact that, you know, PragerU would literally violate state law. In particular, it would violate House Bill 1775, which says we can’t make any students feel bad about who they are, based on a lesson,” Provenzano said. “And so I think you’ll see a lot of pushback on that.”

Provenzano recommends parents keep abreast of what their children are learning at school and take action when they feel they need to.

“It’s also very important for parents to know that they can opt out of this,” Provenzano said. “If your school district is planning on using it, you have the right to know that. You have the right to say, yes, I want my child to participate, or no, my child should not participate.”

Riley Kern’s family plans on doing just that, should PragerU lessons show up in his children’s classrooms. He said if there’s an option to do it, he would want to opt his kids out. But if not, he’s preparing for that scenario too.

“If our children do see this on a regular basis, we will unpack it with them,” Kern said. “And not in a way where we want them to just sort of reject everything they might see in these videos — there’s a mixture of truth and untruth from my perspective — but to help them in an age-appropriate way, learn to think critically and ask questions, instead of just accepting what they’re hearing unquestioningly just because it’s from a very well-drawn cartoon.”

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.