While PragerU sought state approval, Education Commissioner provided support behind the scenes

By SARAH GIBSON

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 10-09-2023 7:35 PM

As a debate simmered this summer about whether New Hampshire should allow the conservative media group PragerU to operate in state schools, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was among its public supporters. But he was also active behind the scenes, participating in PragerU’s efforts to expand its presence in public schools around the country, including speaking to the nonprofit’s donors at a closed meeting.

Edelblut’s collaborations with PragerU, which have not previously been reported, took place while PragerU was seeking state approval to offer an online course to New Hampshire students to fulfill a new financial literacy requirement. The state Board of Education approved it on Sept. 14, after tabling the application over concerns about PragerU’s partisan content and mission. According to public records obtained by NHPR, as the application was pending, Edelblut spoke to PragerU donors at an event in California, received lodging paid for by PragerU, and agreed to record interviews for PragerU’s marketing campaign.

PragerU’s efforts to push back against what it calls “left-wing ideology” in schools mirrors concerns shared by Edelblut. In recent years, Edelblut has highlighted complaints from parents about books on racial justice and LGBTQ+ characters, the use of gender pronouns, and COVID restrictions in schools.

But it is unusual for the head of a state agency in New Hampshire to collaborate in the way Edelblut has with PragerU, including speaking to donors of a group actively seeking approval to operate in the state — and that has levied such pointed critiques against public schools as PragerU has.

In a written response to questions, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Education said Edelblut’s appearance at a PragerU donor event was “an opportunity to promote” New Hampshire’s own education initiatives, including the Learn Everywhere program, which offers students credit for work done out of the classroom with an approved provider. Edelblut said his relationship with PragerU was unrelated to whether or not the group got state approval.

According to public records obtained by NHPR, PragerU staff emailed Edelblut in July, asking if he would participate in an ad featuring state education commissioners about bringing PragerU to students, and speak about Learn Everywhere with PragerU donors at a virtual town hall. Though PragerU's application before the state Board of Education had not been approved, Edelblut agreed to participate in both. He wrote in an email that once PragerU’s financial literacy course was approved in New Hampshire, “I am looking forward to pushing out that offering considerably.”

In late August, Edelblut traveled to Los Angeles to attend the virtual town hall in-person, hosted by PragerU’s CEO Marissa Streit. Neither Edelblut nor PragerU responded to NHPR’s questions about who else presented at the event. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that Edelblut declined an honorarium for the event and paid for his travel expenses, but that PragerU paid for a night of lodging for Edelblut.

A state law that governs gifts, honorariums and expense reimbursements for public officials requires them to disclose such exchanges. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office said it received an expense reimbursement report from Edelblut regarding his trip on Friday, several days after NHPR began inquiring about the trip.

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In response to written questions, Edelblut declined to say whether he had consulted with any other state officials about whether these activities with PragerU were permitted under state ethics guidelines, or whether he talked to members of the state Board of Education about his work with PragerU while the board was considering the non-profit’s application.

Though PragerU is not receiving money from New Hampshire for its financial literacy course, it is using news of its approval to expand its presence elsewhere.

On the day that the New Hampshire state board approved PragerU, PragerU posted an interview between Edelblut and Streit, PragerU’s CEO, next to a link to a petition to allow PragerU in schools across America. And in recent months, PragerU has celebrated its collaboration with state education officials as a win not just for parents and students, but for conservative values. Among its content approved recently in other states, including Florida and Oklahoma, are videos profiling major figures in American history, questioning the science of climate change, and discussing the Founders’ rationale for maintaining slavery.

PragerU declined multiple requests for comment from NHPR.

For now, PragerU Kids' approved material in New Hampshire is limited to a free financial literacy program called Cash Course, which consists of 15 five-minute videos and an assessment. It is one of several online courses through Learn Everywhere that high schoolers can take in lieu of a class at school. But in an email to the Department of Education, the head of education at PragerU Kids expressed enthusiasm about the course’s growth, saying they plan to build similar programs for civics, history, economics, and more.

In his nearly seven years as state education commissioner, Edelblut has aligned himself with conservative and libertarian leaning activist groups on several occasions. In 2021, he was criticized for speaking at a forum hosted by the Government Integrity Project, a group that pushed to overturn school mask mandates and encouraged debunked claims of election fraud.

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Sununu, who appointed Edelblut to the commissioner’s post, did not respond to questions about his work with PragerU by deadline.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.