Why Oklahoma teachers, school districts not interested in PragerU's cartoon version of history

Children's learning content about Christopher Columbus offered on the PragerU website.
Children's learning content about Christopher Columbus offered on the PragerU website.
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Touting the cartoon videos created for school kids by conservative nonprofit PragerU, Oklahoma state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters said recently that he particularly liked the ones about great speeches in U.S. history.

“I love the deep dive into the speeches,” he told PragerU CEO Marissa Streit in a video posted on the group’s website. “I love being able to look and see … Here’s some of the words from the speeches you all know, but let’s provide some context.”

That context comes from a group with a clear agenda: to counter what it calls “the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media and education."

And many of the videos now linked to the Oklahoma State Department of Education website aren't about the real words spoken by historical figures. They are words written by PragerU and put into the mouths of historical figures.

“How can you come here to the 15th century and judge me by your standards in the 21st century?” Christopher Columbus says, in an accent apparently meant to be Italian, in one video. “For those in the future to look back and do this is, well, it’s stupido.”

Before judging, the cartoon Columbus tells two cartoon school kids, “You must ask yourself: What did the culture and society at the time treat as no big deal?”

Slavery, PragerU’s Columbus says, is as old as time and “is better than being killed, no? I don’t see the problem.”

Children's learning content about Frederick Douglass offered on the PragerU website.
Children's learning content about Frederick Douglass offered on the PragerU website.

Cartoon Frederick Douglass is “certainly not okay with slavery” in the PragerU Kids video. But, the abolitionist says things are often more complicated than they seem, and the Founding Fathers had to compromise with the Southern colonies “to achieve something great, the making of the United States.”

Walters gushed about the videos to PragerU’s president, and he put out a news release announcing a “partnership” with the conservative nonprofit, which is not a university.

The news release included a link to a state Education Department webpage called Social Studies, where links to PragerU Kids now reside with links to several other websites, including C-SPAN, the National Archives and the American Bar Association. Those who might wonder if it poses a First Amendment issue when Christopher Columbus says in the PragerU video that only Jesus Christ is perfect can peruse the videos on the page linked to the Bill of Rights Institute. That group was founded by the Koch brothers, who are prominent backers of conservative advocacy.

While Ryan Walters endorses PragerU content, Oklahoma educators won't change curriculum

Walters' endorsement of PragerU and his suggestion that teachers use it as an instructional aid was the latest foray in his battle against what he calls liberal indoctrination in public schools. He embraced PragerU's mission well before linking the group's videos to the state website.

There is no contract between the organization and the state and no requirement that teachers use the free PragerU content or even look at it on the Social Studies page. The statewide teachers organization and some local school districts said they would stick to material that meets Oklahoma’s academic standards.

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said, “OEA continues to believe that curriculum offered in Oklahoma classrooms should meet the high standards set by our local education professionals. PragerU isn’t a legitimate accredited education organization; it is a media organization, whose creator has admitted PragerU material ‘indoctrinates’ kids.

More: PragerU Kids, controversial conservative group, to partner with Oklahoma schools

“It is important to understand that districts do not have to use this material and parents or guardians can opt-out of their children receiving PragerU content. However, it is deeply concerning that the State Department of Education would even endorse this unvetted, non-evidence-based material to be able to reach students in Oklahoma.”

Members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education did not respond to emailed questions about whether they knew Walters was going to announce the “partnership” or whether they believed board action was required before teachers could use the videos in class. One member referred questions to the Education Department’s press office.

A spokesman for the department said Walters' announcement "was of the partnership with PragerU to make their materials available as a supplement and to develop additional materials. There is no state board action necessary.”

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said, "School boards are responsible for working with local educators who are experts in their subject areas to determine the curriculum that will best allow students to meet the state’s academic standards."

Oklahoma City Public Schools said, “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.”

A statement from Edmond Public Schools said they will “continue to follow our policy for selecting district adopted curriculum materials which includes a textbook committee with teachers and parents.

“Pacing guides, district curriculum and teacher resources for the 23-24 school year are already in place and available for our teachers. No resources from PragerU are included in these resources. If a teacher uses additional supplemental materials, they must review materials before they’re presented in the classroom, and the materials must be aligned with the district curriculum and support Oklahoma Academic Standards.”

Norman Public Schools Superintendent Nick Migliorino sent a letter to staff on Thursday saying PragerU "has not been adopted or vetted by our district.

"In Norman Public Schools, all district-adopted curriculum undergoes the district’s approval process, which takes time and input," he wrote. "That process involves our content coordinators and teachers. This ensures that our curriculum is of high quality, accurate, and in alignment with the Oklahoma Academic Standards."

State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks July 27 during an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting.
State schools Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks July 27 during an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting.

In announcing PragerU partnership, Oklahoma follows in Florida's footsteps

Walters’ gesture of adding PragerU Kids links to a department web page came just weeks after Florida’s board of education approved the voluntary use of PragerU material in classrooms. It was the first state to do so.

Walters has previously aligned himself with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Gov. Kevin Stitt is backing DeSantis for president.

Walters told a KTUL reporter earlier this year that he was “regularly in communication with Gov. DeSantis' team” about diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which are strongly opposed by Stitt and Walters.

More: Black-owned newspaper denied interview with Ryan Walters about PragerU partnership

“So you know, I get updates from them and talk to them about what they're finding,” Walters said in February.

Walters and Stitt have complained repeatedly about what they contend is liberal indoctrination in schools. Critics of PragerU say the organization’s goal is plainly conservative indoctrination.

At a recent conference sponsored by Moms for Liberty, PragerU cofounder Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host, said he responded to an accusation of indoctrinating kids by saying, “Which is true. We bring doctrines to children. That’s a very fair statement. I said, ‘What is the bad of our indoctrination?’ So, no answer.”

A Twitter spat between Ryan Walters, California Gov. Gavin Newsom over a PragerU climate change video

After Walters’ announcement about his partnership with PragerU, California Gov. Gavin Newsom posted on X, formerly Twitter: “Politicians in Oklahoma now plan to indoctrinate kids with cartoons that teach slavery was ‘no big deal’ and equate climate change believers to Nazis. Disgusting.”

Walters responded, “Simmer down @GavinNewsom,” along with a graphic that shows people moving away from California.

The climate change video referred to by Newsom is often cited by critics of PragerU. The video depicts a female student in Poland — after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year disrupted energy supplies — being shunned by her friends for pointing out that renewables couldn’t make up for the loss of Russian coal and natural gas.

More: How much did Ryan Walters, OSDE pay for video blasting Oklahoma teacher union?

The video equates her social isolation with the oppression of her grandfather by the Nazis and of her father by the Soviet Union. The video’s happy ending is that Poland last year allowed the distribution of brown coal, which had been banned for home use because of its contribution to air pollution.

Two years ago, PragerU posted a video claiming it was “changing the narrative on climate change” and “fighting back against the left with content for everyone from 9 to 99 years old.”

Photos of the PragerU website and its content.
Photos of the PragerU website and its content.

PragerU’s funding comes from a variety of sources, according to media reports and tax returns filed by charitable organizations. Some major early funding — the group was founded in 2009, with the content for students coming later — came from conservative foundations, including one started by the founder of a fracking company.

However, recent tax returns show PragerU has received millions of dollars from huge charitable organizations affiliated with financial and retirement account services like Fidelity and Schwab.

Fidelity gave $2.4 million to the organization in its 2022 fiscal year, while Schwab donated $1.4 million in the same fiscal year. Those funds’ charities gave to thousands of organizations, including universities in Oklahoma, and including many groups with agendas that directly conflict with that of PragerU.

Fidelity, for instance, gave $4 million in its 2022 fiscal year to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said of PragerU: “Most hosts are establishment conservatives, but many videos feature extremist far-right talking points, including anti-immigrant rants and anti-trans rhetoric.”

PragerU responded with a video calling the Southern Poverty Law Center “a political attack group” that “directly incites” hate and violence.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma teachers opt to skip PragerU Kids' cartoon version of history