Controversial PragerU curriculum has been approved for Florida’s K-12 schools
In July the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida had okayed school materials from PragerU that are aimed at making students conservatives.
The administration of Ron DeSantis approved materials from a conservative group that says it’s all about indoctrination and “changing minds.” The content includes videos narrated by conservative personalities such as Tucker Carlson and Candance Owens, and features cartoons, five-minute video history lessons and story-time shows for young children.
“We are in the mind-changing business and few groups can say that,” (Dennis) Prager says in a promotional video for PragerU. He reiterated this sentiment this summer at a conference for the conservative group Moms for Liberty in Philadelphia, saying it is “fair” to say PragerU indoctrinates children.
Another article highlights why PragerU has generated controversy for pushing propaganda and far-right views:
One video features a cartoon version of Christopher Columbus telling kids that, while slavery might not be great, “being taken as a slave is better than being killed.” Another tells students that one of the most important things kids “need to know” about slavery is that “White men led the world in putting an end to the abhorrent practice.”
An NPR article describes a video in which author Andrew Klavan calls feminism a “mean-spirited, small minded and oppressive philosophy.”
A PragerU video entitled “Is There Really a Climate Emergency?” features Steve Koonin, former Undersecretary for Science in the Obama Administration, who “challenges the confident assumptions of climate alarmists.” Another video called “The Paris Climate Agreement Won’t Change the Climate” says “It won’t do anything for the planet, but it will make everyone poorer–except politicians and environmentalists.”
In a PragerU video called “The Plantation: Then and Now” narrator Candace Owens says slave owners were almost without exception Democrats and then continues to explain the many ways Democrats are now modern day plantation owners.
“In the first half of the 19th century four million blacks worked as slaves, imprisoned on plantations in the American South. They were prevented from learning how to read, their families were forcibly broken up, and if they tried to escape, they were severely and brutally punished. The owners of these plantations were, almost without exception, Democrats.” (Candace Owens for PragerU)
As noted further on in this article, in 2019 PragerU paid Candace Owens $445,626.
PragerU has content specifically tailored for children of all ages, from kindergarten through high school and college.
Their section of 5-Minute Videos is for older students, and is narrated by a who’s who of the far-right, from Tucker Carlson and Alan Dershowitz to Nigel Farage and John Yoo. Below is a sampling of their videos.
Overview of PragerU
PragerU, also known as Prager University Foundation, is a 501(c)3 non-profit that was conceived in 2009 and co-founded by Dennis Prager and Allen Estrin.
Dennis Prager’s biography notes that he had been a Fellow at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs where he did graduate work at the Middle East and Russian Institutes. He taught Russian and Jewish history at Brooklyn College and the Hebrew Bible at American Jewish University. He was a nationally syndicated radio host and columnist before co-founding PragerU with Allen Estrin who has been a screenwriter, producer, director and author.
In 2018 Joseph Bernstein provided detailed coverage in Buzzfeed of ‘How PragerU Is Winning The Right-Wing Culture War Without Donald Trump.’ This comprehensive overview of PragerU from five years ago described the strategy that since then has propelled PragerU to grow significantly and expand its influence. Bernstein wrote:
While it is not an accredited institution of higher learning, Prager University is most definitely an education. Scrolling through its 300-odd videos yields a survey of almost every divisive national issue in the United States today: racism, sexism, income inequality, gun ownership, Islam, immigration, Israel, police brutality, and, of course, speech on college campuses.
Bernstein described how in 2011 Prager and Estrin brought in CEO Marissa Streit, an Israeli-American former Jewish day school principal, who had served in an intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Prager, Estrin and Streit implemented the strategy that has led to continual growth and viral videos viewed tens of millions of times.
The website describes the mission of PragerU:
We promote American values through the creative use of educational videos that reach millions of people online. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Prager University Foundation (“PragerU”) offers a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education. Whether you’re searching for a deeper understanding, a new perspective, or a way to get involved, PragerU helps people of all ages think and live better.
A footnote on the website states:
PragerU is not an accredited university, nor do we claim to be. We don’t offer degrees, but we do provide educational, entertaining, pro-American videos for every age. View counts represent cumulative views from our website and social media channels.
The website also includes this disclaimer:
PragerU is responsible solely for the content of its presenters in PragerU videos and other PragerU-produced media. PragerU is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily agree with or endorse, anything said or written by presenters in any other forum.
The Los Angeles Times noted that “Los Angeles-based Prager University, a registered charity, is legally prohibited from politicking.” While their content continually criticizes Democrats, they appear to get around the political restrictions because they do not promote specific politicians.
In 2018 Bernstein described how PragerU was “making a play for a potentially bigger and longer-lasting audience than just Trump supporters…Millions of young people, many of whom didn’t vote for Donald Trump, looking to stretch their conservative intuitions about our new culture war into a coherent worldview.” And that strategy aligns with the need to maintain their nonprofit status:
Here, finally, might be the reason PragerU ignores Donald Trump. One source close to the organization told BuzzFeed News that management worries that being seen to endorse Trump could cause the company to lose its status as a tax-exempt nonprofit, which are not allowed to engage in “political campaign activity.”
PragerU is not an accredited university — it is a nonprofit, with a growing list of conservative funders, that aims to push its highly controversial and very child-friendly far-right content out to youth across the country. Now that PragerU has officially been approved for use in Florida schools, it’s helpful to understand more about their funders and their financials.
Early funding for PragerU
The largest early funding for PragerU came from two ultra-religious brothers Pastor Farris Wilks and his brother Dan Wilks, who made their fortune in 2011 by selling their fracking business, Frac Tech for $3.5 billion to a consortium led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings. The Wilks brothers walked away from the deal with approximately $1.4 billion each.
As of 2015 Prager University had received at least $6.5 million from the Wilks family and $50,000 from the Heavenly Father’s Foundation run by Dan Wilks and his wife. Vice reported that after funding PragerU, Farris Wilks gave over $4.7 million to start the right-wing Daily Wire website co-founded by Ben Shapiro.
The Wilks brothers, like the Koch brothers and several other energy and resource billionaires, used their massive wealth to fund conservative far-right initiatives that push the ideology that protects and promotes the continued systemic structures that enabled them to earn their fortunes.
Much of the reporting over the past few years on PragerU has highlighted the investment by the Wilks brothers and has frequently identified the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation as the only other significant PragerU funder. However my research on recent filings reveals a funder much larger than the Bradley Foundation and several who have donated similar amounts.
Who funds PragerU?
I used ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer to review hundreds of 990s for charitable organizations that donated to PragerU from 2018 to 2022.
Many of the largest donations came through donor advised funds, community foundations and corporate foundations and giving programs where the funds are directed by an individual who is not identified in the filings.
For example, for the five year period from 2018 to 2022, the National Christian Charitable Foundation and the National Philanthropic Trust each report over $2 million for donations made to PragerU and over $1 million came through the Greater Houston Community Foundation. These donations came from multiple anonymous donors.
PragerU’s largest recent donor is the Marcus Foundation
The largest donor to PragerU in recent years, based on publicly available filings, is the Marcus Foundation. It does not appear that the financial support of the Marcus Foundation for PragerU has been reported on until now.
Over a four year period from 2018 to 2021 The Marcus Foundation donated a combined $6.5 million to PragerU. The Foundation donated $1.5 million per year from 2018 to 2020 and then increased the amount to $2 million in 2021. Their 2022 filing is not yet posted, but if they stay at that level, the five year total could be as high as $8.5 million.
The Marcus Foundation was founded by Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, who serves as the chairman of the foundation. Bernard Marcus has supported many right-wing candidates and causes. Marcus donated $7 million to support Donald Trump for president in 2016. He founded the Job Creators Network which pushed Trump to approve the use of hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19 and the group filed a lawsuit in 2022 to stop Biden’s student loan debt relief program.
Other large PragerU donors
Following are donors who gave between $500,000 to $1,000,000 over the five year period from 2018 to 2022.
- $825,000 – Morgan Family Foundation (filings)
- $810,050 – Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (filings)
- $800,000 – Mitchell Foundation (filings)
- $750,000 – Jack Roth Charitable Foundation (filings)
- $677,860 – Daniel S Chillemi Charitable Foundation (filings)
- $575,000 – Crocker Catalyst Foundation (filings)
- $550,000 – Daniel & Joylene Hegel Family Foundation (filings)
- $500,000 – Diana Davis Spencer Foundation (filings)
- $500,000 – Turning Point USA (filings)
Of these donors, the Daniel & Joylene Hegel Family Foundation gave $500,000 in 2022 and the Jack Roth Charitable Foundation gave $400,000 in 2022, showing a large increase over prior year giving.
Another notable donor that is not included in the list above is The Edelman Family Foundation which made their first donation of $400,000 in 2022.
Turning Point USA donated $500,000 to PragerU — which paid $445,626 to Candace Owens — who had worked for Turning Point USA
One of the more unusual items I found was that the conservative group Turning Point USA, a nonprofit founded by Charlie Kirk that advocates for conservative causes for high school and college students, made several large donations to PragerU.
Candace Owens was the communications director of Turning Point USA until she stepped down in 2019 following some controversy after she said that Hitler was OK until he tried to go global. That same year Candace Owens was paid $445,626 by PragerU.
Candace Owens was very busy in 2019 when she left Turning Point USA and earned almost half a million dollars from PragerU — that year she also co-founded her own nonprofit called BLEXIT with Brandon Tatum. The BLEXIT website describes its mission “to empower minority communities to pursue the American dream and shape their own futures.”
In it’s-a-small-world-after-all news — BLEXIT and Turning Point have now merged.
This thread from 2020 described how one of the officers of Candace Owens’ BLEXIT Foundation was Neil Corkery, who was also an officer of The 85 Fund (aka the Honest Elections Project, and formerly the Judicial Education Project). The 85 Fund is closely associated with far-right judicial puppet-master Leonard Leo. And when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia set-up her nonprofit, Liberty Central, Inc. in 2009 the accountant was Neil Corkery (noted here by researcher ThomasS4217).
The 2022 990 filing for the BLEXIT Foundation shows that in September 2022, right-wing donor and Cambridge Analytica funder Rebekah Mercer became a BLEXIT board member.
PragerU financial highlights
Following are some key highlights from the PragerU financial filings that show their significant growth and some of the key vendors they are working with.
A review of Prager University Foundation’s IRS 990 forms for the five year period from 2018 to 2022 shows that total revenue (990 row 12) grew significantly from under $20 million in 2018 to over $65 million in 2022.
The vast majority of the revenue comes from contributions and grants, with a small amount of revenue coming from program service revenue, investment income and other sources. Total revenue from 2018-2022 was slightly more than $200 million and total expenses were approximately $128 million for the five-year period.
The largest expenses for PragerU were for advertising and promotions, followed by salaries, other compensation, benefits and taxes. Some of the expenses for advertising and promotions is broken out in the independent contractor section of the 990 (part VII section B).
In 2018 PragerU had 14 contractors that were paid more than $100,000 and in 2022 the number more than doubled to 31 contractors. The 990 only lists information for the top five contractors.
All amounts below are USD. Some of the data for Kansas & Brooklyn came from the section on ‘Business Transactions Involving Interested Persons’.
(990 Part VII section B)
|5 year total
|Fox News Network
|EKF Promotions (promotions materials)
|Kansas & Brooklyn (owned by Dennis Prager, Co-Founder)
|Richard Norman Company (mass mailer marketing services)
|Candace Owens (presenter/show host)
|Iconic Event Studios
The two largest independent contractors for PragerU are Facebook and Google, with approximately $16 million spent on both in 2022 and a combined $43 million over five years.
As a side note, one reason I researched PragerU financials is that Twitter displayed several PragerU ads on my timeline recently, so I decided to learn more about them. It is not known how much PragerU has paid Twitter and that information will only be available in a future 990 if they are one of the top five independent contractors.