TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly says he opposes indoctrination in schools. Yet his administration in early July approved materials from a conservative group that says it’s all about indoctrination and “changing minds.”
The Florida Department of Education determined that educational materials geared toward young children and high school students created by PragerU, a nonprofit co-founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager, was in alignment with the state’s standards on how to teach civics and government to K-12 students.
The content — some of which is narrated by conservative personalities such as Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson — features cartoons, five-minute video history lessons and story-time shows for young children and is part of a brand called PragerU Kids. And the lessons share a common message: Being pro-American means aligning oneself to mainstream conservative talking points.
“We are in the mind-changing business and few groups can say that,” Prager says in a promotional video for PragerU as a whole. He reiterated that sentiment this summer at a conference for the conservative group Moms for Liberty in Philadelphia, saying it is “fair” to say PragerU indoctrinates children.
“It’s true we bring doctrines to children,” Prager told the group. “But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”
The governor’s office and the Florida Department of Education declined to say how PragerU’s mission and statements align with state law and DeSantis’ vow to ensure Florida classroom instruction does not indoctrinate or persuade students to accept a specific viewpoint.
PragerU is not an accredited university, and it publicly says the group is a “force of good” against the left. It’s a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles that produces videos that touch on a range of themes, including climate policies (specifically how “energy poverty, not climate change” is the real crisis), the flaws of Canada’s government-run health care system (and how the American privatized system is better), and broad support for law enforcement (and rejection of Black Lives Matter). In some cases, the videos tell kids that their teachers are “misinformed” or “lying.”
Some videos talk about the history of race relations and slavery. In one video, two kids travel back in time to meet Christopher Columbus, who tells them that he should not be judged for enslaving people because the practice was “no big deal” in his time. Columbus argued to the kids that he did not see a problem with it because “being taken as a slave is better than being killed.”
In another video titled “A Short History of Slavery” and narrated by Owens, she says that the first thing kids need to know is that “slavery was not invented by white people” and that it also took place in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. She also says “white people were the first to put an end to slavery” when it was abolished by Britain in 1834.
“After centuries of human slavery, white men led the world in putting an end to the abhorrent practice. That includes the 300,000 Union soldiers, overwhelmingly white, who died during the Civil War,” Owens says, while adding that “no one, regardless of skin color, stands guiltless,” noting that white slaves have also existed.
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In a statement, Florida Department of Education spokesperson Cassie Palelis said the state agency “reviewed PragerU Kids and determined the material aligns to Florida’s revised civics and government standards.”
“PragerU Kids is no different than many other resources, which can be used as supplemental materials in Florida schools at district discretion,” Palelis said. She added that PragerU Kids did not submit a bid to be included in 2022-23 instructional material list, but did not answer when asked if it had submitted a bid for the 2023-24 school year.
Florida approves PragerU content for use in schools
That type of content can now be used in Florida classrooms at the discretion of schools. The option is becoming available as the DeSantis administration and Republican lawmakers add other right-leaning educational choices to students, including a Classic Learning Test, revised K-12 standards and an overhaul of college-level course offerings.
Adrienne McCarthy, a Kansas State University researcher who co-authored a case study on PragerU after viewing hundreds of its videos, said in an interview that the content has a “very strong agenda.”
“The videos have this very strong us-versus-them dichotomy, and it’s usually the evil, immoral leftists versus the moral Judeo-Christian right,” McCarthy said. “They are attacking culture and trying to change rhetoric.”
With colorful animation, catchy melodies and adventurous child protagonists, the content is seemingly harmless and friendly, she says. But she argued the content could potentially serve as a “gateway for right extremism.”
“If we’re teaching ideologies that overlap with far-right groups, and that becomes normalized, then it’s easier for those far-right groups to become more brave and grow,” McCarthy said.
Melissa Streit, the chief executive officer of PragerU, said in an interview that the group’s content is meant to “create an even playing field” in schools — and that the only ones accusing them of indoctrinating students with a right-wing ideology are “probably the teachers unions,” which she said don’t want to lose control of the system.
Teachers unions have criticized the organization. In a video posted on TikTok, Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said the group has a “political agenda” as it goes over some of its content.
“We believe in teaching an honest history, a complete history. We believe in teaching the truth,” Spar says in the video. “Teachers are not pushing an agenda, they are pushing to educate children. This (PragerU) is pushing an agenda. You don’t have to take my word for it, check it out for yourselves. This is part of the agenda of Ron DeSantis.”
Streit defended the group’s content and messaging in a phone interview.
“To label PragerU as right wing, one should also label at the same time virtually 80% of what’s in American schools right now as extreme left wing,” Streit said. “The ideology that we promote is a pro-American ideology, the ideology of which America was essentially built upon that has created this nation. But we are not a political enterprise, we are a pro-American enterprise.”
Conservative activism in education
Streit said PragerU Kids was launched two years ago. Around the same time, groups like Moms for Liberty stepped into the mainstream political world, and school board meetings across the country became engulfed by partisan culture wars as parents and activists debated pandemic restrictions, race and gender issues.
“We launched because we realized that there are many parents who want their kids to learn more than what they’re learning in schools,” Streit said. “We are very, very big believers in education choice, and we believe that parents should be involved and have the right to really make sure that their kids are learning what it is that they believe that they should learn.”
In Florida, the state approved the content to be used as a supplemental material in classroom instruction. It does not mean that PragerU will be writing the curriculum at a school, but that if a school approved the use of the material, a teacher could use it as an aid to teach a class.
The materials could be used starting in the upcoming school year, but some districts — including Broward, Miami-Dade, Pasco and Pinellas — say that curriculum guides remain under development and that no decisions have been made to accommodate PragerU content.
They said they have no plans to review the materials for inclusion, unless PragerU submits a bid to be considered.
Streit said the group believes in transparency and that anything that would be made available to classrooms would be made available online for parents to see.
The group’s website, prageru.com, includes links to dozens of video clips, its mission and information for those who want to learn and donate to their cause.
It also includes a list of its presenters, which include conservative activist and Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk; David Rubin, a conservative commentator and political supporter of DeSantis; and Will Witt, a longtime influencer for PragerU and the editor-in-chief of the conservative media outlet The Florida Standard, which DeSantis and his office turn to frequently to amplify their message.
The website does not include information on who is creating the content or its reference sources.
When asked for more information on the content creators, Streit said there “are a lot of people involved” with different expertise, but that the group does not intend to disclose their names or credentials on their website because “we live in a world where people attack people who they disagree with.”
How PragerU came to Florida
Streit has found supporters in Florida. She said talks of bringing PragerU Kids to Florida — the first state in the nation to approve its content — began over the summer with Education Commissioner Manny Diaz and K-12 Chancellor Paul Burns.
“The state did not approach us,” Streit said. “I would say that we got to know each other through mutual friends and we started talking about how we can be helpful. It is not that they came and applied for us to do something.”
Before the initiative was launched in Florida, Streit said she also crossed paths with Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis. Streit did not specify when or where, but she said that is how she learned that the DeSantis family showed PragerU videos to their young kids.
“So I imagine that if he thinks it’s good enough for his own children, why wouldn’t it be good enough for other Floridians?” Streit said.
DeSantis’ office did not respond when asked if this was true.
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.