The Quasi–White Nationalist Content Coming to Florida’s Public Schools
Last week, an organization called PragerU announced that the state of Florida had approved it as an official vendor for educational material.
This was a controversial development: PragerU’s explicit mission is to combat “leftism” in education, and until now, its materials had not made it, at least officially, into any public schools. But for Florida, the news tracks with recent trends.
The 2022 Stop W.O.K.E. Act banned schools from teaching children about privilege and systemic racism. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration blocked an Advanced Placement course on African American studies over claims it violated state law. The state’s new educational standards, posted recently by the Florida Department of Education, equate historical acts of white supremacist violence with race riots—or, as it’s stated, with “acts of violence perpetrated by African Americans.” And the new standards require that middle school students learn how slavery taught Black people useful, specialized skills “that could be used for ‘personal benefit.’ ”
So it’s not entirely surprising that the state’s Education Department concluded that PragerU’s content fit its standards. For PragerU, this is a major victory: The organization has been campaigning for this moment for years.
Despite its name, PragerU isn’t a university—or any kind of accredited educational institution. It was founded in 2009 by Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host previously known for being a less inflammatory voice of the right. Prager, convinced that the key to a brighter future was to instill college students with conservative values, first dreamed of an actual university. But he and his co-founder soon realized that the venture would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, PragerU, a nonprofit, pivoted quickly to creating free, slickly produced educational videos as conservative counterprogramming.
Its “5 Minute Ideas” videos proved particularly popular, relying often on misleading or even outright false claims about U.S. history, and racking up millions of views on YouTube. High school and college students across the country meet on campus in support of PragerU content and gather at annual conferences. A host of prominent right-wing figures, including Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro, have supported PragerU, either by speaking out in support or appearing in the content itself. It earned some $20 million in net revenue in 2021—largely from contributions. Today PragerU claims that its videos collectively have more than 8 billion YouTube views.
But in recent years, in parallel with the national conversation, PragerU has shifted away from college students and begun to focus more on children.
For the 2023–24 school year, each district in Florida will be able to determine which of PragerU’s materials will be used as supplemental teaching tools. Not all of its children’s content is inflammatory. It’s possible that districts will take only relatively benign materials. There are accurate PragerU lessons on personal finances and the structure of the Electoral College.
But the closer you look, the more very right-wing content you find.
Take, for example, its “Leo & Layla” series, in which an animated tween girl and her kid brother travel through time to meet historical figures. In the video in which they meet Booker T. Washington, the animated Washington—who in real life was born enslaved—plays down America’s culpability in slavery. When Layla asks Washington if he wished he’d lived in another country, he responds that slavery has “been a reality everywhere in the world” and that “I am still so proud and thankful to be an American” because the U.S. was “one of the first places on earth to outlaw slavery.”
Then, when Layla expresses her sorrow over segregation and racism, he reassures her: “You have nothing to be sorry about. You and Leo have done nothing wrong. Future generations are never responsible for the sins of the past.” Layla then vows to “never feel guilty about historical stuff.”
In another video, Frederick Douglass teaches the children the virtues of patience and compromise in activism. The children get upset when seeing activists call for abolishing the police and protesters destroying cars on TV. (Leo also complains that his math teacher has given him a social justice assignment.) Douglass—another person born into slavery—reassures the children that “our founding fathers knew that slavery was evil and wrong and they knew it would do terrible harm to the nation” but that they were forced to be patient.
“I’m certainly not OK with slavery, but the founding fathers made a compromise to achieve something great: the making of the United States,” Douglass says. He, like Washington, boasts of America’s role in ending slavery worldwide and complains about “radical” abolitionists. “Our system is wonderful, and the Constitution is a glorious liberty document,” he says. “We just need to convince enough Americans to be true to it.”
The videos on race might be the series’ most offensive, but others are no more subtle. Some tell children not to feel guilty about using plastic or expound upon the virtues of Reaganomics or the war on drugs. (The Reagan video also uses the opportunity to praise him as being popular, handsome, a talented actor, and good at sports.)
There are other PragerU series, such as its Nickelodeon-esque gross-out game show, which quizzes children on the lives of people like Ayn Rand and Amy Coney Barrett. (“Teach elementary students what it means for a Supreme Court justice to be an ‘originalist.’ ”) There’s love for the capitalistspirit here too: John D. Rockefeller is praised as an “often-mischaracterized oil tycoon and great philanthropist who worked hard, saved his customers money, and gave away much of his wealth.”
Another program, animated stories of children around the world, dwells partially on the evils of communism and socialism. One video about religious persecution focuses on a Coptic Christian boy in Egypt. The story of Priya teaches kids to put discrimination “in perspective” and “how the British Empire lifted India out of a long tradition of caste discrimination.” In Canada, Marcel learns that he’s been misled about universal health care: It turns out that if his grandfather had had access to specialists in America’s privatized system, he might still be alive. In Los Angeles, Mateo, the son of Mexican immigrants, learns about the myth of police racial profiling and the importance of supporting the police to protect his neighborhood from criminals and rioters. And in Poland, Ania’s family members compare her courage in promoting climate denialism (“telling the truth”) with Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Uprising.
The content for teenagers fixates more on preparing teens to grow into conservative adults and fight the culture wars. Videos impart lessons such as “taking ownership of your life,” “working hard and enjoying it,” and “being a victor and not a victim.” And they teach teens that they should not trust every expert. (In the “thinking objectively” lesson, a teen challenges an emotional man with a goofy voice and strange wig who claims that humans are causing climate change.)
Perhaps PragerU’s oddest videos are its “how-to” lessons on “embracing your femininity” and masculinity. “Most gender stereotypes exist because they reflect the way men and women are naturally different, and those differences aren’t bad,” one host explains. She encourages girls to “master the art of makeup,” not “expose parts of your body that would send the wrong message,” not to “develop the reputation of being a gossip,” “be grateful when a man goes out of his way to show you respect,” and smile. Teen boys, on the other hand, are told to be proud of their ambition and strength.
There’s one moment that stands out in the “rational patriots” video, which reminds teens to remember that the U.S. is not a democracy but a constitutional republic, that America is the freest country in the world, and that “people love using history as a tool for their own political agenda.” American values, the host claims, stem from “Judeo-Christian principles of individual freedom and limited government power.”
We don’t yet know how this curriculum will be used. PragerU’s more religious content may not make it into schools. But the CEO’s deep belief in “Judeo-Christian values” as essential to America pervades the lessons. God is mentioned occasionally. Some of Leo & Layla’s adventures take them to meet biblical characters. Prager is Jewish, so the curriculum isn’t Christian, but there’s a clear political alliance here with Christian nationalists.
According to the American Prospect, students have already, for years, reported being assigned PragerU content. (A teacher at a Catholic school in Missouri was fired in 2019 for showing a PragerU video titled “Why You Can’t Argue With a Leftist.”) PragerU’s campaign to get into schools has also already reached thousands of home-school parents and teachers in private and religious schools.
But some activists worry that if PragerU is officially recognized, it could easily expose children to the program’s more extreme material for adults—content that contends there is no gender wage gap, that “Blacks in power don’t empower Blacks,” that Islam is holding society back, and that Muslims naturally hate Jews.
“A couple of years ago we launched PragerU kids because parents have been frustrated; teachers have been frustrated,” the nonprofit’s CEO said in a video announcing the Florida news. “We have seen that our schools have been hijacked by the left. They have been politicized. They have been used by union bosses. They have been doing everything under the sun not for our children.”
And PragerU isn’t satisfied yet. It wants its supporters to sign a petition to spread even farther, beyond Florida.
“You should know that the left is trying to fight us,” the host says in the announcement video. “They’re trying to take us out of the schools, and we need your support.”