State licenses PragerU for classrooms, watchdog weary of ‘extremist’ content

By: - October 15, 2023 10:21 am

(Illustration by Getty Images)

Montana Office of Public Instruction licensed PragerU, known for videos misrepresenting history and pushing false right-wing narratives, to provide educational content to schools in the state, should school boards adopt them.

OPI said the superintendent approves book dealers, not content, but one extremism watchdog in the state said the videos push rhetoric from fringe groups into mainstream content for children.

“They cast doubt on the realities of climate change and the brutality of slavery. They make completely false claims about public school curriculum. They dismiss well-documented incidents of discrimination,” said Cherilyn DeVries of the Montana Human Rights Network. “Organizations promoting misinformation and openly partisan agendas like this have no right to force their way into nonpartisan public schools.”

Montana follows Florida and Oklahoma in approving the license for PragerU in the state, as first reported by Montana Free Press. However, a public schools official said approval of teaching the controversial content in classrooms will be in the hands of local school board trustees in Montana.

PragerU says it offers a “free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education,” as stated on its website. The nonprofit did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

Media Matters, a nonprofit tasked with monitoring conservative misinformation, conducted an analysis of every video PragerU published on its Youtube page, calling it “right-wing propaganda.”

Some examples of PragerU Kids Media Matters listed in the summary of its analysis:

  • A cartoon Booker T. Washington distorting the history of the Civil War.
  • A narrator explaining that embracing climate denialism is akin to participating in the Warsaw Uprising.
  • An instructional video telling girls that conforming to gender stereotypes is a great way to embrace their femininity.
  • A dramatization of the supposedly civilizing, benevolent era of British colonial rule in India.

Spokesperson for OPI Brian O’Leary told the Daily Montanan in an email as long as the textbook dealer meets the requirements in statute, then the superintendent is required to sign the textbook agreement.

O’Leary said a parent connected Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen with PragerU, after which she met with PragerU Chief of Staff Jessica Sherk.

In response to a question on what feedback the state has received from the decision to license PragerU, O’Leary said, “there are a variety of opinions from federal, state, and local levels.”

O’Leary said the decision on whether to implement PragerU in classrooms is left to local school districts.

Executive Director of School Administrators of Montana Rob Watson said in a phone call with the Daily Montanan earlier this week he had not heard from school administrators on PragerU.

Watson said the process for implementing new curriculum in the state, modeled from the Montana School Board Association, is comprehensive and would likely take a year to do.

He said it starts with a curriculum committee, generally made up of district staff and maybe content experts, who then make recommendations to the board of trustees. He said the board typically takes a few meetings to allow for public comment on the material, but ultimately the decision is theirs.

“I would encourage administrators just to make sure they had an open and transparent process and that the community had a chance to provide thoughts and comments before any decision was made,” Watson said.

Watson said the content seemed fairly politicized, which can cause problems for districts.

“Because you’re going to have people on both sides of that issue,” he said. “Most educators would like to stay politically neutral on these sorts of decisions and try to find materials that are factual but also fairly neutral in terms of not picking a side either way.”

However, Watson said it doesn’t mean educators shy away from controversial topics.

“That’s part of the educational process is to make sure that our students are aware of controversial issues, and they’re exposed to both sides of an issue, and then make an informed decision using critical thinking skills,” Watson said. “I think what’s most important is kids are exposed to the facts. They’re allowed to make those decisions on their own after they’ve been exposed to the facts.”

DeVries said PragerU is not just partisan.

“It’s trying to undermine our institutions by casting doubt on facts, by kind of negating the validity of expert opinions on things,” DeVries.

She said one of her sons, then a teenager, came to her after watching a PragerU video, saying something about it didn’t seem right.

She said at first the video seems reasonable.

“It sounds like ‘Oh, patriotism is good’ or you know, ‘We all want a healthy economy’ or ‘We should all get along,’” she said. “And then they kind of dive into some of the racism and minimize anti-Semitism.”

DeVries said it was alarming since she knew her kids weren’t looking this up, but an algorithm fed them the video.

“This is how kids get radicalized,” she said.

She said in the wake of the pandemic, kids are still struggling and looking for something strong to believe in, and PragerU can seem very convincing.

“This seems to be a reasonable position, and then suddenly they are getting partisan and extremist propaganda mixed in with their curriculum at school,” she said. “This is how these kinds of positions and groups get normalized.”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.