Florida has been at the center of controversy over what books are appropriate in schools, with conservative parents pushing back over titles like “Gender Queer” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”

But now parents in one Florida county are challenging a text used in a high school financial literacy class. The author in question? Talk show host Dave Ramsey.

In Pasco County, a handful of parents are objecting to the use of “Foundations in Personal Finance,” a book based on the teachings of Ramsey, a Christian whose radio show, podcast and videos reach 20 million people each week. His company, Ramsey Solutions, offers a personal finance curriculum for schools as well as one for home-schooling families.

The book is among those that meet the standards for personal finance education in Utah and the many other states that offer this kind of instruction.

But the parents in opposition to the text in Florida say Ramsey’s curriculum “is not unbiased” and amounts to “indoctrination” because it includes Bible verses and contains advice that the parents say is unrealistic, such as not using credit cards or taking out student loans.

“All of the advice is ‘just don’t spend over your budget, don’t have debt, and make sure that you also, as a high school student, are working a job and save up money to pay for your own college’,” parent Jessica Wright, who is also a teacher, said, according to local news reports. “I think in 2023 we know that’s not realistic advice.” She added that she wants students to use a textbook “that is actually academic.”

What’s happening in Pasco County is playing out in other parts of the country as some school districts are authorizing the use of instructional material from conservative sources, such as Ramsey Solutions and PragerU. In a country that is increasingly dividing itself into red and blue silos, in everything from entertainment to coffee to credit cards, it’s not surprising that conservatives might want to see school curricula aligned with their values — or that liberals might object to that curricula.

But Ramsey’s curriculum has been around for more than a decade; in 2009, the Palm Beach Post published a brief article that said 79 students in one Florida high school would participate in Ramsey’s “Foundation in Personal Finance” course — paid for by a local Chick-fil-A, at that.

So why is controversy over Ramsey simmering now, and why does one education scholar call this a good thing?

Why Dave Ramsey is in schools

According to the Ramsey Solutions’ website, “Foundations in Personal Finance has helped more than five million students nationwide, and over 45% of high schools have taught these impactful lessons.” That’s virtually impossible to verify; Ramsey Solutions has its own publishing company (in fact, Ramsey’s first book was self-published) and did not respond to an inquiry about its school curricula.

But given Ramsey’s popularity — he is No. 2 on Talkers magazine’s 2023 list of the most influential talk radio hosts in the U.S. — and the fact that he encourages sponsors to provide books for schools, those numbers aren’t unrealistic.

Most, if not all, of the text’s chapter titles appear to be common sense, in line with Ben Franklin’s advice on money, which included “Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.” But the inclusion of Bible verses such as Proverbs 21:20 — “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has” — and the focus on Ramsey himself, troubles some parents.

Some see him as proselytizing; others dislike his tough-love approach, which is evident in a video a parents’ group made that shows Ramsey saying on his show, “Some of you people are raising twits.” Last year, he came under fire for arguing that landlords can be “good Christians” even if they raise rent so much that their tenants have to move out.

Are PragerU and Dave Ramsey similar?

Although Ramsey rarely talks about his faith or politics, he is widely seen as sharing the same ideological lane as Dennis Prager, the conservative talk show host who has said his goal is to get more young people to embrace Judeo-Christian values. PragerU is the online learning portal Prager founded to help achieve that goal, and Florida has approved the use of PragerU videos in public schools, joining Montana, Texas and Oklahoma, to the outrage of some parents.

Liz Barker, a Florida mother of four told NPR, “I do not want my kids exposed to this. Absolutely not.”

PragerU also has a course in financial literacy that New Hampshire’s Board of Education recently approved, despite pushback at a public hearing from people who called PragerU “overtly and proudly partisan.”

On its website, the nonprofit says it “offers a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education” and says it “helps people of all ages think and live better.”

WMUR reported that at the public hearing in New Hampshire, C.J. Pearson, a PragerU spokesman, said, “I’ve heard some people talk about indoctrination today, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. Indoctrination is the idea that you show one point of view, one side of the argument. We just want to present the other.”

That’s the essence of the conservative argument for allowing conservative-leaning instruction in public schools, whether Ramsey, PragerU or the “American Birthright” social studies standards that stirred controversy in Colorado: that public education has swung too far to the left in how material is presented, and that these are alternative perspectives that should be considered.

“Far too many education professionals work consciously or unconsciously to minimize, delegitimize, or eliminate the history and the ideals of conservative Americans — and, indeed, the history and the ideals of moderate Americans and of classical liberals. We proudly incorporate that history and those ideals,” the American Birthright website says.

Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on education, said that left-leaning organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center routinely provide instructional materials for classrooms, “certainly with some parental backlash and some grumbling but not the same kind of concentrated media backlash that we’re seeing from the PragerU and Dave Ramsey stuff.”

The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which was criticized by conservatives for its reframing of American history, has also been developed into curricula for public schools.

‘A privilege, an obligation and a right’

So can “The 1619 Project” and PragerU coexist in public schools?

And could the introduction of right-leaning material help conservatives feel better about what their children are being taught in public schools and win back home-schooling parents, some of whom pulled their children out for ideological reasons?

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the rise in home-schooling, but the pandemic also changed education in other ways, one of which we’re seeing play out in controversies over curricula, said Christine Cooke Fairbanks, an education policy fellow at the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City.

While they were home during lockdowns, many parents paid more attention to what their children were being taught than they had previously, Fairbanks said. That, coupled with intense media attention on culture-war issues in the classroom, combine for an environment where parents are “more keenly aware” of the instruction that their children are receiving, and many school districts are offering what is known as “curriculum transparency.”

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That’s a good thing, Fairbanks said, but it can also lead to seemingly negative publicity if even a few parents object.

“The fact that these items of curricula are being discussed is only because they landed on a public list of some kind. And so this shows the power of transparency,” Fairbanks said.

“Curriculum transparency has traditionally been couched as sort of a conservative policy issue, but that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to empower parents — left of center, right of center, parents with no ideology — to inform them what their children are learning. Parents really do have the privilege, the obligation, the right, to guide their student’s education,” she said.

But both Fairbanks and Eden noted that it’s virtually impossible for schools and classrooms to offer instructional materials that are “values-free,” even when texts and teaching material are vetted for ideological bents. That’s why it falls to state education boards and local school districts to set standards in line with a community’s values and preferences.

“There’s no such thing as a values-free education, and so everyone has to make these decisions about what they want to be taught. And on a practical level, the reality is, teachers can bring what they want into the classroom and teach it, even if there are required texts or the approved list by the state. Maybe they’ll get criticism later if it’s problematic, but it’s usually after the fact,” Fairbanks said. “Having these discussions up front creates the space to talk about the merits of curricula, and that’s a good thing.”

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Eden, at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that boards of education are authorizing the use of PragerU videos and Ramsey’s material, but not mandating that they be taught.

“It’s creating a permission structure for teachers in some schools to grab this tool off of the right side of the shelf, when we know that for a long time, without having explicit permission, they have been grabbing tools off the left side of the shelf.”

If the instructional matter proves controversial, that could in some ways, stimulate students’ interest and give the teacher an opportunity to encourage deeper thought and debate. And if all else fails, Eden said, liberals uncomfortable with conservative-leaning material have the same option that conservatives have exercised in the past.

“There might be some kid who learns implicit moral lessons that run counter to the way their household operates, and in that case, you can understand the parent’s complaints. And this might be the conservative policy wonk in me talking, but in that case, there’s school choice,” he said.

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