Parents Defending Education has released a new report that offers some unsettling information about the reach of the People’s Republic of China in U.S. K-12 schools through so-called Confucius Classrooms.
“Confucius Classrooms are a program that is intended to teach children Chinese language and culture, which on its face sounds benign, but some of your viewers, listeners might remember Confucius Institutes, which were the corollary in the university system,” says Nicole Neily, founder and president of Parents Defending Education.
Parents Defending Education describes itself on its website as “a national grass-roots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas.”
“That’s something that [Cabinet] Secretaries [Betsy] DeVos and [Mike] Pompeo reined in during the Trump administration, because Confucius Institutes at the higher-ed level were actually found by the U.S. State Department to be considered foreign missions of the People’s Republic of China,” Neily says, adding:
And so, the fact that these are operating in K-12 schools across the country, even though we have, for the large part, reined in these programs at the higher-ed level, should really concern a lot of people.
Neily joins today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what’s being taught in Confucius Classrooms, some key takeaways of the report, and reactions from U.S. lawmakers about the report.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Nicole Neily is joining today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.” Nicole is the president and founder of Parents Defending Education, as well as the founder of Speech First. Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.
Nicole Neily: Thanks for having me.
Aschieris: So, Parents Defending Education recently released a report titled “Little Red Classrooms” that found Confucius Classrooms or other Chinese government-backed programming are still in operation at schools throughout the United States. Nicole, before we get into the report and its findings, what are Confucius Classrooms and what’s the concern with them?
Neily: Sure. So, Confucius Classrooms are a program that is intended to teach children Chinese language and culture, which on its face sounds benign, but some of your viewers, listeners might remember Confucius Institutes, which were the corollary in the university system.
That’s something that [former Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and [former State Secretary Mike] Pompeo reined in during the Trump administration because Confucius Institutes at the higher ed level were actually found by the U.S. State Department to be considered foreign missions of the People’s Republic of China.
And so the fact that these are operating in K-12 schools across the country, even though we have, for the large part, reined in on these programs at the higher ed level, should really concern a lot of people.
Aschieris: Absolutely. And we’ve talked on the show before about Confucius Institutes and some of the dangers that they pose. With Confucius Classrooms themselves, you’re talking about, on face value, what they’re being taught, but what is actually being taught in these Confucius Classrooms?
Neily: I think one problem for a lot of families is they’re not quite sure. Families don’t have access to translations. And so, parents don’t know whether their children are learning about a one-child policy, what they’re learning about, Tibet or the Uyghurs or Hong Kong or Taiwan. So I think there’s curricular questions.
And as we have looked at and identified these different partnerships with school districts around the country, we have seen that, in many cases, Hanban, the kind of Chinese soft-power overseas agency, has veto authority or approval over what the curriculum actually is, as well as who the teachers are that are being sent from the mainland.
Obviously, you’re not going to get an exit visa and be allowed to teach in America without having checked a lot of ideological boxes.
And so while we don’t have access to the curriculum, fourth graders are learning that Chairman Mao [Zedong] is wonderful. The fact that there is so much opacity about this problem should really, really concern both policymakers as well as families alike.
Aschieris: It is certainly very concerning. And something that I took away from the report was that Parents Defending Education tracked affiliations in 143 schools across 34 states and Washington, D.C., and at least seven are still active. Where are those seven located?
Neily: They are all around the country. There’s one in the suburbs of Dallas, in Highland Park ISD, which is a very affluent Republican area. There are a number that are clustered on military bases, which is something else that really should start to raise a lot of questions and eyebrows because these are not cities or districts that have been picked out of the blue. These have been chosen strategically. And the fact that they’re still operating, again, no one really knows what’s going on.
Aschieris: Yeah, absolutely. I do want to talk a little bit more about these Confucius Classrooms that have been found around military installations. But before we get to that, can you speak more broadly to the report’s findings and some of the key takeaways that you think are really important for our audience to know and to remember from our conversation?
Neily: Sure. So, this actually started because we identified, in March 2023, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, formerly America’s No. 1 magnet school in the country, had received over a million dollars from Chinese Communist Party military-linked entities, run through foundations, run through other kind of pass-throughs.
And after speaking to members of the PTA and other former people who would’ve been involved with TJ, one thing that they noted was that the donors were able to “look under the hood.” They had access to floor plans, lesson plans, student research projects.
And a lot of these students, being in the D.C. area, had done internships for programs like [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], [the Defense Intelligence Agency], [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]—so somewhat sometimes sensitive research projects. And it’s very strange for a foreign donor to have access to that.
So we thought, “Well, this is happening and this is troubling. Is this happening elsewhere in America?” And we found that yes, absolutely it is. And even after the Trump administration took steps to rein in the higher education programs, many of these have continued in K-12 schools.
What’s interesting to me is that the Trump administration was able to go through the Higher Education Act because there is transparency required for foreign funding, anything above $250,000. There’s no transparency requirement for foreign funding of K-12 schools in America. And even if there was, the threshold of $250,000 in the Higher Education Act is actually well above a lot of the transactions that we identified around the country.
So we think that there should be more transparency about this as well as a far lower threshold so that parents can make informed decisions about whether they want their children to participate in these programs or not.
Aschieris: Now, in terms of the Confucius Classrooms that are no longer active, have you found that they formally closed or did they just essentially change names and are still operating, doing the same thing? Did you find that they actually closed or did they just rename themselves and are basically still doing the same thing?
Neily: Yes, a little bit of both. And that was one of the things that was complicated about trying to figure out this research project, is we realized that a lot of these organizations, when the Trump administration started cracking down, a lot of these programs went underground.
Maybe the university that they were affiliated with, they got rid of their Confucius Institute program, but perhaps a nonprofit sprung up in its place to perform the same function and then get donations from overseas.
In some cases, some of the school districts were actually paying money back to these various CCP pass-throughs. And so it wasn’t just a clear corollary of, OK, money goes from China to a Confucius Institute to a district. There was a lot of money flowing back and forth, sometimes through organizations like the Asia Society, sometimes through individual standups like an international association in Texas.
And so it was, and I think continues to be, intentionally confusing. And that’s why we say we’re pretty positive this is only the tip of the iceberg. And that’s why we requested members of the House and Senate as well as of all the governors to conduct their own investigations so that we as an American people can get our arms around the scope of this problem.
Aschieris: Absolutely. I mean, if you think … the different aspects that China is able to influence in our lives, whether it’s through TikTok or, just as we’re talking right now, in our classrooms in America, how can they be stopped? … You’re talking about how the Trump administration was able to move to crack down on this issue—or at the state or federal level. What needs to happen for this issue to be addressed?
Neily: Yes. Well, the Confucius Classroom and Institute programs are definitely a soft-power exercise. And so that’s more of a kind of medium- to long-term play. They try to soften American attitudes toward the Chinese government and Chinese policies.
But I think at the same time, while first we need to raise awareness—because I think, frighteningly, most families have no idea that this is taking place. And this is certainly not to say that all Chinese-language programs in America are bad. We just want parents to ask some questions and figure out where the funding and the programming is coming from so that they can decide if that’s something they want or not.
But beyond that, we have started to see, from both sides of the aisle, a more robust response to China overall. And I think that is a good thing.
We don’t want America, American IP, American businesses, American military to be trifled with. We want our foreign adversaries to view us as a threat.
So I think for our military to start to take these things more seriously, to work more actively with Taiwan, work more actively with regional powers, as well as to draw lines in the sand about kinds of technology that we will not be using—be it TikTok, be it the 5G network that was under consideration for a hot second here in America—I think those are things where we need to be conscious that we do not live in a safe world and we need to take steps to protect our national interest accordingly.
Aschieris: Absolutely. And if we don’t take those steps accordingly, if we don’t get this under control in American classrooms where our kids are being taught—obviously, you don’t want this influence, especially from the Chinese Communist Party, being taught, told to our children. What happens if that isn’t stopped? What happens if we aren’t able to get a grip on this influence that we’re seeing?
Neily: Right. I think in the education system, there are two dangers. The first is, as Randi Weingarten always says, we want people to learn true history. And the true history that the PRC is putting out about China is not accurate, right, about Hong Kong, about Taiwan, about these other aspects. And so we want children to know the facts so that they can make up their minds about how to deal with China on a geopolitical stage.
But also, the other thing that worries me in the education sphere is just this pushing of equity. We were watching American schools across the country get rid of advanced math classes in the name of equity.
We don’t want some children to feel bad that they’re not in these programs, so we’re going to get rid of all AP classes, all calculus, things like that. That is not how America or the American economy succeeds in the long term, when we’re unable to compete against our foreign adversaries.
So we should want to continue to be a meritocracy. We should want to continue to push excellence in this country so that we can continue to compete and out-excel people who would do us harm.
Aschieris: And as we were talking earlier, with these Confucius Classrooms being close to military installations—some, just to name a few, Fort Bragg, Fort Knox, Dover Air Force Base—why is this particularly worrisome and what should be done about that?
Neily: Sure. So, one thing that we found in looking at these programs that are located around military bases is often, in some of the contracts that are written between the Confucius Classrooms and the district itself, the teachers will have access to the school network, school database.
And so I think it starts to raise questions about what kind of information is being gathered about students and their families, and how will that be used and exported.
We had a reporter last week ask us, “Well, is there proof that these are intelligence-gathering facilities?” And I mean, let’s think back to 2020 when the Chinese Embassy in Houston, there were reports of fire, right? Because they were burning files.
So this is not just a data server farm that is exporting information. It’s, “All right, I’m going to download all these families’ information, Social Security numbers onto a thumb drive, and then email to somebody.” And so I think, just again, what information’s being collected?
And one thing we’re seeing right now, aside from this program, is school districts across the country that are surveying students about deeply personal things—politics, weapons, religion, things like that, gender ideology—and then not securing that information.
So if all of this information is being collected about students and their families and then is accessible to a foreign national, again, how will that information be used against us in the future?
Aschieris: Now, I know Congress is in recess right now, but I wanted to ask if you’ve gotten any reaction from lawmakers to the report and if anyone has moved to do anything about the findings in the report?
Neily: Yeah, we’ve had a terrific reception. We reached out to House armed services, House foreign affairs, House education, same thing in the Senate, as well as the House select committee on China.
And actually, the day that the report came out, Rep. Jim Banks from Indiana sent a letter to Secretary [Miguel] Cardona at the Department of Education, demanding an investigation of this.
So we’re heartened by that response. We hope that members will hear from their constituents when they’re home over recess and that this ball is not dropped because we think it’s very, very important to continue to pull up this thread.
Aschieris: Absolutely. And one more thing I wanted to ask you about the report is, a lot of schools throughout the country are starting to get back into session, whether it’s later this month or beginning of September. From a parent’s perspective, or even from a student’s perspective, if you’re in school, if you’re even at the college level with Confucius Institutes, what are some, I guess, red flags, so to speak, that people can be aware of, maybe if they weren’t aware of this issue before, that they can spot and be able to identify if their school does have a Confucius Classroom?
Neily: Sure. We have been digging into board documents from school districts. We have been filing public records requests about this. And so, we are certainly more than happy to dig into if somebody has a question about whether a program is a Confucius Classroom at their school or not. We would encourage anybody who is interested in that to do their own digging or to reach out to us for help.
Because again, this is not to say that all Chinese-language programs are bad, but it is merely that, as [former President Ronald] Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” Know what you’re getting into. And if you decide that this is not a program that is run by people who share my values, then maybe you opt out. Maybe you go to a different school. Maybe your child takes Latin instead.
And some people at the end of the day might be OK with their children learning from a CCP-educated teacher. I personally am not, but I respect other people’s ability to make that decision for themselves.
Aschieris: And just in a more general sense, talking about going back to school, obviously, education has become a huge issue, has become a huge national topic over the last couple of years, especially here in Virginia. With this in mind and with people, as I say, with students going back to school, how can parents take on a more active role in their children’s education this fall, and questions that they could be asking maybe at back-to-school night to kind of figure out what their children are actually learning?
Neily: Yeah. I’m a big fan of the saying “forewarned is forearmed.” So we encourage parents to read the student handbook, the rights and responsibilities. There’s a lot of information in some of those and fine print about what your students do or do not have the right to do in school.
We’ve seen a lot of schools recently that have mandated pronoun usage, which, in our mind, is compelled speech. That’s the First Amendment violation. But districts are adopting anti-racist policies. They’re adopting gender policies. And so, really to look into that and know what your school says and then figure out what your risk tolerance is.
Some people want to be the one who goes and speaks up at a school or meeting. Other people don’t want to. They maybe have a small business. They’re worried about retaliation either against themselves or their children. But it’s, I think, very much a “see something, say something” moment in time.
A lot of parents, through our tip line, almost 100% of what we get in, people say that they want to be anonymous. That’s OK because at least we’re able to get access to the information and out it. I will be the one who takes the slings and arrows.
But once people know what’s happening in their district, in their backyard, it gives them a reason to get involved, as well as for policymakers to do something about it. And so we tell people, “Stay vigilant. Keep an eye out.” And if you feel like you have a problem, please reach out to me or our team at Parents Defending Education because we want to get everyone to a place where they feel that their child was receiving the best possible education for them and their family.
Aschieris: Absolutely. Nicole, just before we go, I just want to circle back to the report really quick and ask what you think the likelihood is that, if the roles were reversed, that we could have some type of Confucius Classroom-style situation in China? What’s the likelihood that that would happen?
Neily: I think it’s pretty close to zero. I think most foreign countries have a pretty iron grip over the kinds of information that are able to be shared in their schools, particularly to young people. And so the fact that we have kind of thrown our doors open and said, “The more, the merrier. You’re all welcome,” is perhaps, in retrospect, a little bit Pollyannaish.
And certainly, as you and I know, the American education system, even prior to [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funding, was awash in money. And so to say that we needed free teachers, free from overseas, or we needed free curriculum is absolutely laughable.
Our schools have done a very bad job of allocating resources to the places that need it. And I think this is yet another reason that we need to rein in the public education system in America.
Aschieris: Well, Nicole Neily, thank you so much for joining us. Any final thoughts before we go?
Neily: No, I think that’s it.
Aschieris: Perfect. Thank you so much. I’ll definitely make sure to include a link to the report in our show notes so everybody can take a look at that. And yeah, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Neily: Thank you.
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