The top education official in New Hampshire is recommending that the state grant academic credit to high schoolers who complete an online financial literacy course offered by Prager University Foundation, or PragerU, a conservative nonprofit that has been at the center of controversy over a newly approved curriculum in Florida.
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut will seek approval Thursday from the State Board of Education for the course to be included in New Hampshire’s “Learn Everywhere” program, according to an agenda for the board’s meeting.
His recommendation is raising eyebrows and questions about the curriculum review process.
PragerU: not an accredited school
“The introduction of that organization, of PragerU, in New Hampshire will certainly change the tone of how we talk about Learn Everywhere issues,” said Christina Pretorius, policy director for Reaching Higher NH, a Concord-based nonprofit that focuses on public education.
“If this organization is approved for financial literacy, does it open the door for PragerU to offer other programs?” she added. “Does it open the door for other hyper-ideological organizations to also come in, and would the state approve that curriculum as well?”
PragerU isn’t an accredited school. It’s a conservative platform that was co-founded by talk show host Dennis Prager to offer “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education,” with persuasion as a core component of its mission. The financial literacy course recommended by Edelblut included a single assessment that students could complete simply by searching for answers online.
The group boasts that 70 percent of those who viewed its videos changed their minds on at least one issue. The site’s featured presenters include Ben Shapiro, Michael Knowles, Candace Owens, and Jordan B. Peterson. Recent videos on the site include “Why I Left the Left,” “How Multiculturalism Is Fracturing America,” and “Make Men Masculine Again.”
The platform added PragerU Kids content based on the notion that, as the group’s website states, “Woke agendas are infiltrating classrooms, culture, and social media.” The platform’s educational resources are often aimed at homeschooling families.
Controversy in Florida
That kid-oriented content — which includes video “edutainment” programming and lesson plans that cover history, politics, and financial concepts — sparked a fresh wave of controversy after Florida’s education department recently approved it as supplemental curriculum material that teachers could choose to use in their classrooms.
PragerU CEO Marissa Streit said in a video in July that Florida’s decision means teachers in that state “cannot be fired for using PragerU content.” She called for supporters to help get PragerU materials into classrooms in more states as a way to counteract K-12 schools having been “hijacked by the left” and “used by union bosses.”
In a video last week, Streit lauded states with Learn Everywhere programs and said PragerU is working with several of them to award academic credit.
Video calls slavery a ‘compromise’
Critics have been particularly galled by PragerU’s history lessons related to slavery.
One video depicts a conversation between time-traveling kids and Booker T. Washington, the formerly enslaved Black educator and intellectual leader. The cartoon version of Washington promotes patriotism and self-sufficiency, and he tells the kids, “Future generations are never responsible for the sins of the past.”
Another video depicts abolitionist Frederick Douglass telling the kids that slavery was part of a “compromise” that America’s founding fathers made “to achieve something great.”
Critics have also taken issue with how PragerU Kids covers topics on gender, race, colonialism, and climate change, and PragerU has been accused in the past of disseminating videos with errors and misrepresentations.
A spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Education said on Tuesday that Edelblut had not received any concerns about PragerU’s credibility.
In a statement, Edelblut told the Globe that the free financial literacy course PragerU offers will teach New Hampshire students vital lessons about budgeting, investing, pay stubs, taxes, and more.
“Financial literacy is a crucial life skill. Providing students with the tools to manage their finances early helps them to become financially successful adults,” Edelblut said.
“New Hampshire understands the importance of financial literacy, and this is one more option for high school students to take advantage of as part of the many educational choices available to them,” he added.
Questions about the review of the course
Pretorius, from Reaching Higher NH, said even though this program would be optional, it would represent a state-approved curriculum for which local school districts are required to grant academic credit, so one would expect such programs to undergo a rigorous review.
“If the state is going to approve curriculum, it is critical that they get certified educators’ eyes on that,” she said. “I think that is one of the most important steps.”
But there’s no sign that anyone in New Hampshire besides administrators in the Department of Education were involved in the formal review of PragerU’s course.
Timothy Carney, the department’s administrator of educational pathways, formed a two-person ad hoc committee to review PragerU’s application. The committee members were Carney himself and Nathaniel Greene, a former science teacher and school administrator who holds a doctorate in educational leadership and now serves as acting administrator for the bureau of educational opportunities.
Carney wrote in a letter to Edelblut that he “contacted multiple New Hampshire teachers certified in social studies” and “reached out to members of the Extended Learning Opportunities Network (ELON)” to seek their expertise. But “neither the teachers nor the ELON members responded to the offer to review the application.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told the Globe on Wednesday that emails were sent on July 3 to eight people — five social studies teachers and three ELO coordinators — none of whom responded.
Although one of those three ELO coordinators told the Globe that she never received Carney’s invitation, the spokesperson provided a screenshot of the email that Carney said he sent. The screenshot shows that he gave them until July 7 to respond.
Donna Couture, a member of the ELON leadership team, said on Tuesday that Carney typically contacts her and ELON President Kerrie Alley-Violette when he has trouble finding reviewers, so it’s a bit unusual that they didn’t hear from him when he failed to find outside reviewers for the PragerU course.
Pushing for a more-rigorous process
Couture, who works as director of extended learning at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, said ELO coordinators across the state had initially viewed Edelblut as a potential advocate for them, but his team’s Learn Everywhere approval process has been “circumventing” the work ELO coordinators do at the school level.
“We very early on expressed our concern with that process and tried to do what we could to influence some changes in what he was trying to put forward, and we were not successful,” she said. “So when the program moved forward, the most we could do was to influence how they approve the applications.”
Couture said ELON members have pushed for a more rigorous and consistent review process, to no avail.
Even without reviewers from outside the department, the two-member committee flagged a potential concern about the PragerU course, according to Carney’s letter. The committee noted that the course had identified learning goals, but not competencies, and students could simply Google the answers to complete the course’s one and only assessment. That wouldn’t guarantee that students had actually mastered the content.
PragerU responded by saying it has now organized the videos under four competencies and increased the number of correct answers needed to pass the single assessment.
If the board follows Edelblut’s recommendation, then PragerU would receive an initial one-year approval to issue certificates good for a half-credit toward New Hampshire’s high school graduation requirements. The 2023-2024 school year is the first in which those requirements include personal financial literacy as a standalone subject.
Financial literacy in schools
After a flurry of legislation in the past few years, nearly half of the states now have laws on the books requiring at least one semester of financial literacy instruction.
PragerU’s program wouldn’t be the first financial literacy course approved for Learn Everywhere credit in New Hampshire. A free course from Massachusetts-based nonprofit FitMoney already secured an initial one-year approval last fall.
FitMoney executive director Jessica Pelletier said her team offers the online course as a quarter-credit certificate, so teachers can deliver in-classroom instruction for the other quarter-credit that students need to graduate.
More than 100 students from New Hampshire have enrolled in FitMoney’s course since November 2022, and at least 30 have earned their certificate so far, Pelletier said. The course was developed by educators and revised based on feedback from educators, she said.
Pelletier said she’s not familiar with PragerU, but she generally welcomes the arrival of additional ways for students to learn about financial literacy: “The more the merrier.”
Advocating against diversity and inclusion
What sets PragerU videos apart from other options is their proximity to content that advocates for conservative ideas and activism. Students and parents who view the first video in PragerU’s financial literacy course are one mouse-click away from a “Parent Action Guide” that urges scrutiny of any public official who parents suspect is involved in topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The document specifically advises parents to use keywords like “gender identity” and “transgender” to request correspondence on those topics.
The tactics that PragerU recommends have been used in districts across the country to ratchet up pressure on school boards over topics related to race and LGBTQ inclusion, so the prospect of PragerU’s further legitimization through state-approved curricula is raising alarms.
Edelblut, a Republican businessman whose seven children were homeschooled, is mulling a potential bid for governor in 2024. He narrowly lost the GOP primary in 2016 to Chris Sununu, who has announced he won’t seek a fifth two-year term. Two other Republicans and two Democrats have already announced their gubernatorial candidacies.
New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley called Edelblut’s recommendation in favor of PragerU’s course “an affront to the principles of unbiased education” and a further politicization of the department he’s overseen since 2017.
“Our schools must be a sanctuary for critical thinking and intellectual growth,” Buckley said, “not a platform for political indoctrination.”