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Arizona public schools chief partners with right-wing propagandist

The move will present a "dumbed-down, whitewashed version of history" to students, critics said.
Arizona schools superintendent Tom Horne debuted a new partnership with controversial nonprofit PragerU on Wednesday.
Arizona schools superintendent Tom Horne debuted a new partnership with controversial nonprofit PragerU on Wednesday. TJ L'Heureux
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Tom Horne, the state school superintendent, is partnering with PragerU, making Arizona the fifth state to promote the controversial content creator that uses cartoon characters to downplay slavery and push conservative messages.

Horne announced the partnership on Wednesday, pledging to publicize PragerU's materials on the website of the Arizona Department of Education.

“It’s alright for teachers to teach controversial views, as long as both sides are presented,” Horne said. “The problem we’ve had is in some classrooms, only the extreme left side has been presented.”

Phoenix New Times asked Horne what “left-wing” sites the Department of Education promotes or will promote.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Horne noted that choosing curricula is up to school districts and that PragerU materials are not required to be taught in classrooms. But Horne said his administration will do “everything we can to let people know” the materials are available for use.

As of Thursday, the department's website showed no mention of PragerU.

PragerU CEO Marissa Streit leaned into criticism of the nonprofit's materials.

“We do have an ideological viewpoint,” Streit said. “You know, it is a sad state of affairs that actually hanging an American flag that is red, white and blue is a political issue and that if you don’t add a bunch of colors and rainbows then you’re suddenly a political bigot.”

PragerU’s website describes the company as “the world's leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media.”

Horne and Streit were joined at the announcement on Wednesday by several right-wing, election-denying, anti-LGBTQ+ and disinformation purveyors from the Arizona Senate: Sens. Jake Hoffman, Anthony Kern, Wendy Rogers and Justine Wadsack.
click to enlarge PragerU CEO Marissa Streit
PragerU CEO Marissa Streit said the company does "have an ideological viewpoint" during a press conference on Wednesday.
TJ L'Heureux

PragerU’s ‘whitewashed version of history’

Critics argue some PragerU content is one-sided and doesn't meet the standards of what should be taught in schools.

“PragerU’s hyperpartisan and substandard materials have no place in our schools, and educators know that, as do the local school board members who make decisions about curricula,” Arizona Education Association President Marisol Garcia said in a written statement.

Kerry Baker, one of five members of the Paradise Valley Unified School District Governing Board, said that as a parent, she wouldn't want her children watching PragerU's videos.

“It’s presenting to them a dumbed-down, whitewashed version of history," Baker said.

“If you choose to use it, you’re subjecting these kids to subpar learning. I thought we were supposed to be making test scores better and improving academics and focusing on reading, writing and math. I mean, that’s what they (Horne and his allies) all say," she added.

Some of the videos reviewed by New Times whitewash history with no factual basis for doing so, pairing the disinformation with outlandish, absurd cartoons.

A cartoon version of Frederick Douglass, the slave who became one of the best-known and most vocal opponents of slavery after his 1838 escape from it, says in one video, “Our founders created a system they thought would have slavery end gradually.”

The quote is contrary to what Douglass is recorded to have said. Douglass preferred not to speculate about the intentions of the founders.

“It would be the wildest of absurdities, and lead to endless confusion and mischiefs, if, instead of looking to the written paper itself (the U.S. Constitution), for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it,” Douglass said in an 1860 speech.

In a cartoon video of children chatting with Christopher Columbus — whose 1492 arrival in the Americas started centuries of slavery, forced labor and mass killing of Indigenous Americans — the famed voyager asks the children, “Being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no?” He then tells them it is “estupido” to “judge me by your standards from the 21st century.”

The video also paints Columbus as a secret opponent of slavery, which has no historical basis. In fact, it’s well-documented that Columbus elected to ship 500 Indigenous people to Spain to be slaves, but they died on the voyage to Europe. Even after that, Dutch writer Hans Koning noted that Colombus wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

The Douglass and Columbus videos are two of 69 history videos on PragerU's website, which features 3,782 total videos.
click to enlarge PragerU CEO Marissa Streit
PragerU CEO Marissa Streit cut the ribbon near tables of the company's materials as Arizona school superintendent Tom Horne watched.
TJ L'Heureux

Education Department vets materials — just not these

Horne defended PragerU's videos during the press conference on Wednesday.

“Prager materials are rich in content and have a commitment to presenting facts to students to better understand American history,” Horne said.

“Now, unlike some people, I think it’s unprofessional conduct for a teacher to use a captive audience to push their own ideology,” Horne added, blissfully unaware of the irony. “The thing about the Prager materials is that they’re objective, which is what our teachers should be doing.”

New Times asked Horne how many videos he had watched.

“I don’t know the answer,” he said.

Horne also said the department did not review PragerU materials.

“We do vet everything we put on our portal,” Horne said. But he then contradicted himself by noting the department did not vet PragerU content “because they’re already well-known, and we knew what they stood for.”

Baker said that school curriculum at the local level goes through a much more rigorous process for approval.

“He (Horne) is just putting this on his website for teachers to use without going through any sort of process or policy,” Baker said.
click to enlarge Children holding poster board signs
Children attended a press conference on Wednesday announcing a partnership between the Arizona Department of Education and PragerU.
TJ L'Heureux

Horne wants ‘a round of headlines’

Critics of Horne said he is using his position to further his right-wing views and agenda, as well as raise his profile in conservative political circles.

Sarah James is a governing board member of Tempe Union High School District. She’s concerned that PragerU labels itself as “conservative.”

“From the way that people like Tom Horne talk and say they want politics out of education, it’s literally inserting politics into education,” James said. “I wouldn’t be okay with someone saying, ‘Hey, this is super-liberal curriculum.’ We need to look at accurate curriculum that has been vetted by professionals so that we know it’s the best thing our students are getting and that it has the best outcomes for our students."

Garcia said the Horne's partnership will generate a round of headlines for the school superintendent.

“There’s a reason Superintendent Horne has been called the worst school official in America. He’s always looking for ways to use Arizona’s public schools to push a far-right political agenda,” Garcia said. “Superintendent Horne’s announcement won’t change much for Arizona’s students and teachers. But it will generate a round of headlines for him — which was, of course, the entire point.”

James agreed. “This is just a political move,” she said.

Baker said Horne's politically motivated leadership is "unfortunate."

“It’s a divisive way to lead as superintendent of all of our public schools. He wants his certain political agenda taught in these schools, and that’s not where it belongs," she said.

In November, New Times reported that Horne misrepresented a student-organized presentation about the Gaza humanitarian crisis in a callous move that used high schoolers as pawns. Sources said his claims caused student organizers to be bullied.
click to enlarge Arizona Sens. Anthony Kern and Jake Hoffman
Arizona Sens. Anthony Kern and Jake Hoffman were among right-wing elected officials who attended the press conference on Wednesday at the state Capitol.
TJ L'Heureux

PragerU’s controversial founder

PragerU was founded in 2009 by screenwriter Allen Estrin and conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, known primarily for his anti-LGBTQ views.

“The acceptance of homosexuality as the equal of heterosexual marital love signifies the decline of Western civilization,” Prager told Congress in 1994.

He was also removed from the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2006 for writing, "Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."

The company infuses its materials with "Judeo-Christian values," according to its 2023 annual report.

“We educate everyone about the importance of Judeo-Christian values in their own lives, and to the future of Western Civilization," according to the report.
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