A new investigation by RH Reality Check found that fundamentalist billionaires are funding the development of sectarian courses for use in public schools.
Dan and Farris Wilks made their fortune in fracking, and according to RH Reality Check’s Brie Shea, they’re putting their ample funds at the disposal of Dennis Prager and his “Prager University.” The virtual school, which is not accredited, produces video “courses” on subjects like feminism and religion. They’re available to anyone, but in recent years Prager and his backers have deliberately sought out partnerships with public schools.
That’s not exactly a new goal for the Wilks brothers. Right Wing Watch reported last year that both belong to far right operative David Lane’s “Pastors and Pews” group and attended an Iowa event for presidential hopefuls U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
In comments made to Christian Broadcast News (CBN) at the time, both expressed support for teaching sectarian material in public school.“I just think we have to make people aware, you know, and bring the Bible back into the school, and start teaching our kids at a younger age, and, uh, you know, and focus on the younger generation,” Dan Wilks said. Farris added, “They’re being taught the other ideas, the gay agenda, every day out in the world so we have to stand up and explain to them that that’s not real, that’s not proper, it’s not right.”
It’s little wonder, then, they’d be drawn to Prager. Shea reported that the religious broadcaster and author once condemned secular parents in the pages of the The National Review.
“It’s sad when a parent who believes, for example, in the American Trinity of ‘Liberty,’ ‘In God We Trust,’ and ‘E Pluribus Unum’ has a child who believes that equality trumps liberty, that a secular America is preferable to a God-centered one, and that multiculturalism should replace the unifying American identity,” he wrote.
Enter Prager University. The school has launched two partnership programs, both aimed at introducing its courses to a young audience. The “Educator Program” offers teachers free curriculum supplements that accompany its videos, and the “Academic Partnership Program” offers students extra credit for watching the same videos in participating classes.
About those videos: On its website, the school lists “I Am The Lord Your God,” “God vs. Atheism: Which Is More Moral?” and “Does God Exist? 4 New Arguments” among its current religion and philosophy offerings. Students and educators interested in political science may choose from courses like “The World’s Most Persecuted Minority: Christians” and “Feminism vs. Truth.”
The “university” says it also plans to release 16 new religion courses in the future. Those courses include “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?” All will, presumably, be available for educators to use.
Shea reported that RH Reality Check identified at least 14 public schools listed as “academic partners.” The website contacted the schools, but educators from only two responded; they explained they use the videos to encourage classroom discussion and debate. Others didn’t return requests for comment.
There may be more public schools involved. According to Shea, it’s difficult to know exactly how many of the educators and institutions listed as partners are public schools—or private faith schools that accept publicly funded vouchers.
And that’s a problem. Dennis Prager and his billionaire backers aren’t providing these materials because they actually want to help public schools; they’re doing it because they think these courses are a way to convert students.
If teachers are using the material simply to spur debate, that may be constitutional, though much depends on context. But if they’re using the videos as a means to teach creationism or otherwise proselytize in the classroom, that’s an obvious violation of the First Amendment.
RH Reality Check’s investigation should be an educational moment for schools. Prager and his allies may not believe that separation of church and state exists, but courts do.