Education

Despite announcement, controversial PragerU curriculum is not part of Texas education, experts say

PragerU is a conservative video content production company. Experts have said their material is ‘rife with errors and half truths, leaves out a lot of relevant information.’

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For a moment last week, it appeared that PragerU curriculum could be used in Texas. The controversial curriculum was approved earlier this month in Florida, and received backlash after its materials were shown to teach that enslaved people benefitted from slavery.

However, Texas education officials said no, they’re not using the curriculum.

PragerU is a conservative-oriented video content company founded by Dennis Prager, according to Houston Chronicle reporter Edward McKinley, who covered the story. He spoke to Craig Cohen on Houston Matters on Monday about the mix up.

“It was founded to, ‘promote American values,’ and as a, ‘free alternative to the dominant left wing ideology in culture, media and education.'” McKinley said.

McKinley said there were some videos that are immediately available on the site, including: “The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party, Why I Left the Left, and Was the Civil War About Slavery?”

“Some of the other ones that have generated some controversy in the national headlines for the Florida stuff include one where they describe feminism as an oppressive philosophy,” he said. “And another that has a cartoon depiction of Frederick Douglass raise rationalizing the existence of slavery in the early United States.”

It seemed for a moment that these materials would be part of formal curriculum in Texas schools because State Board of Education member Julie Pickren starred in a Welcome to Texas video for PragerU. In the video, PragerU officials said they had been approved in Texas, and would be rolling out in Texas curriculum.

“I think anyone watching that video would have had the impression that they were going to be rolling out to all the Texas schools. But that’s just not accurate,” McKinley said. “It’s not a accurate depiction of the process by which curriculum are approved in Texas. And that will not be the case.”

David DeMatthews with UT-Austin's College of Education said the announcement seemed like a publicity stunt.

"I think parents should be really concerned that somebody running this organization is trying to package five minute videos to convince their children of something rather than provide them with actual education content developed by researchers and historians and scholars,” DeMatthews told KUT, Austin’s NPR affiliate.

During Monday’s Houston Matters, McKinley said there is a new law that passed earlier this year that allows different curriculum providers to apply for state endorsement. However, the material wouldn’t immediately get rolled out to every school.

“At the end of the day, school districts choose whether they want to use materials from anywhere. So she may have been referring to that. It seems like they intend to pursue that avenue. But that hasn’t even begun yet. So…it’s not really very clear why why it was announced that way.”

Currently, districts can use whatever materials they want as long as it follows state-approved curriculum standards.

“Those standards are established by the State Board of Education, and they go through 10-year cycles,” McKinley said. “So, for instance, if we’re talking about social studies, the last one they did was 2010. And they’ll be picking it up again in 2025 after they delayed it last year.”

Duncan Klussman is former Spring Branch ISD superintendent and also joined the show on Monday. He said the new law McKinley mentioned, HB 1605, would require several criteria to be approved.

“One of the criteria is free from factual error. So the the whole content needs to be free from factual error,” Klussman said. “My understanding is on PragerU’s content, they would struggle probably to meet that standard.”

Klussman said in 2018, PragerU’s content was assessed by the Cato Institute, which is another right-leaning institute.

“This is what they said: ‘The video is poorly framed, rife with errors and half truths, leaves out a lot of relevant information and comes to anti-legal immigration conclusion that is unsupported by the evidence presented in the rest of the video.’ So if that’s a right leaning institute that analyzes PragerU’s content that way, I’m not sure how they would get approved, under free a factual error from the state board,” Klussman said. “If the state board works approved them, it would be purely on a political stance versus a meeting the standards that are set in 1605.”

Klussman added that when he was superintendent, he didn’t receive materials like PragerU, but he did receive materials from textbook companies and structure materials companies that have been around for many years.

“But we do have to remember something: probably what PragerU provides is what would be considered supplemental content, not core content,” Klussman said. “I don’t think they have, really the content to be approved to be, say, the textbook provider for social studies.”

Klussman said he predicts that more of this will happen: more organizations will present more controversial education material to school boards.

“You have an organization that sounds like a university, but it’s not a university. It’s formed to basically provide this content out; I think you’re going to see more efforts out of that,” he said. “I think there just needs to be very strong vetting of content at the state level. You know, the state level controversy around content is not a new thing that’s been going on in Texas for 20, 30 years…the legislation has been provided and provides a strong process. The state board needs to adopt rules to follow that process, and needs to put a solid process into make sure teachers and students and families have the best content that they could possibly get.”

KUT’s Becky Fogel contributed to this report.