The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Firm saw $40 million potential in Charlie Kirk’s ‘America-first’ academy. Then its plans fell apart.

The nascent partnership dissolved after an employee revolt and a pullout by a key subcontractor leery of doing business with Kirk’s Turning Point USA

Charlie Kirk's Turning Point USA, the conservative youth group he founded, plans to tap into parental discontent with school systems by establishing an academy. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Turning Point USA, the youth group led by pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk, sought to entice investors last year with a new foray in the culture wars: an academy aimed at students failed by schools “poisoning our youth with anti-American ideas.”

A company in the early stages of realizing Kirk’s vision was anticipating millions in revenue from Turning Point Academy — part of an effort to market K-12 curriculum to families seeking an “America-first education.”

A document circulated within StrongMind, an education firm in Arizona where programmers had begun work on the project, noted plans to open the online academy by the fall of 2022 and assessed its “potential to generate over $40MM in gross revenue at full capacity (10K students).”

The firm’s plans disintegrated last week amid a Washington Post investigation and backlash from StrongMind employees concerned about the prospect of Turning Point-directed lesson plans. A key subcontractor tapped to prepare course material also backed out after learning that Kirk’s group was the ultimate client. The 28-year-old activist, who boasts 1.7 million Twitter followers, has championed former president Donald Trump’s baseless claim that widespread fraud cost him reelection and has scorned demands for racial justice that followed the 2020 murder of a Black man at the hands of the Minneapolis police, calling George Floyd a “scumbag.”

Kirk still intends to open the academy, though with other partners, said a spokesman, Andrew Kolvet, who called the agreement with StrongMind “nonbinding and nonexclusive.”

The early blueprint for Turning Point Academy — laid out in detail for the first time in documents and chat logs reviewed by The Post — points to the growing market for education and media serving families disgruntled with public schools, a flash point in many communities and a key issue on the campaign trail. The quest to raise revenue by allowing families to bypass traditional schools and buy curriculum more aligned with their political worldview worried some experts and watchdogs.

“This sounds like a very slippery slope,” said Carole Basile, dean of Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “It depends on what the curriculum actually looks like, but to move in the direction of letting partisan identity decide what is being taught, that feels new and worrying.”

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Turning Point USA, founded by Kirk in 2012, rose to prominence by maintaining a “professor watchlist” promising to unmask liberal instructors. The nonprofit prospered under Trump’s presidency, raising more than $80 million from undisclosed donors, according to its four most recent tax filings. It announced its intentions to launch an academy last year, in the midst of an inflamed debate over how much schools should focus on racial inequity.

A bare-bones Web page says that public school students are taught a “false narrative about America” and that the academy will promote a “reliable, honest, and quality America-first education.” A 2021 Turning Point USA investor prospectus, which was obtained and published by the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy, highlights the project, which the prospectus says is necessary because “the Left has permeated America’s educational institutions.”

A promised debut last fall didn’t materialize. By that point, however, Kirk’s group had started discussions with StrongMind to help launch the academy, according to people who participated in the conversations and, like some others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive details. StrongMind sells digital curriculum and educational technology, among other products.

In early discussions last fall, Turning Point USA learned from StrongMind executives that the company relied on labor in the Philippines, according to a person familiar with the conversations. The overseas workforce — tasked with creative efforts, such as graphic design, and confirmed by two additional people familiar with the setup — was notable because of Turning Point’s emphasis on an “America-first education.” Kolvet said that reliance on foreign labor posed a problem for Turning Point’s brand and that StrongMind was asked if the team working on the project could be domestic.

Still, the disclosure didn’t end preparations for a potential partnership.

StrongMind notified employees on Jan. 21 that work with Turning Point USA was underway and that Verano Learning Partners, an associated nonprofit led by the company’s founder and chief executive, Damian Creamer, was “pleased to add Turning Point Academy to its family of schools.”

“This private education option will offer K-12 families, nationwide, the choice to enroll in a fully online private school, bring together other families to form a learning pod, or school independently from home,” Cody Bendix, StrongMind’s corporate communications director, wrote on an internal messaging platform, according to screenshots reviewed by The Post.

The announcement caused an outcry inside the company, where some employees raised concerns in Zoom meetings about the move to partner with Kirk, according to four employees who attended the sessions.

Three employees said a StrongMind manager told staff that existing course content would mostly be suitable for the academy but that certain details would need to be adjusted or omitted. As an example, the company manager said Turning Point might have problems with a lesson plan using a speech by a Republican president to highlight propaganda techniques, according to people familiar with the comments.

In written responses to The Post, Bendix said StrongMind was anticipating that the curriculum for Turning Point Academy would be “nonpartisan.”

Appealing to disaffected parents was at the heart of StrongMind’s pitch. A business prospectus says working with Turning Point USA would have given the company “access to a network of 1,000 chapters across all 50 states made up of people frustrated with the state of public education.”

The plans were geared toward home schooling or a variation involving small groups of students — arrangements that grew more popular during the pandemic, with the number of households turning to home schooling doubling between April and October 2020, according to census data.

StrongMind’s leaders saw the partnership as a launchpad for national influence in the area of school choice, invoking the e-commerce giant Amazon as a model: “This initiative seeks to do the same for StrongMind and school choice.”

Kirk’s group completed the commercial equation. Turning Point USA, the document explains, “brings preexisting relationships with many target customers.” StrongMind, the document emphasizes, saw value in “opinion brand and reach.”

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But a key subcontractor saw matters differently. The firm selected to help prepare curriculum was Freedom Learning Group, an education company run by military spouses and veterans. Its chief executive, Elizabeth O’Brien, told The Post in a text message last week, “When advised that the ultimate client was Turning Point USA, we notified the curriculum developer that we are terminating the contract.”

Creamer informed Turning Point USA of the setback the same day, effectively dissolving the partnership by making clear that StrongMind no longer had the capacity to help start the academy, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Bendix, StrongMind’s corporate communications director, said the company needed its “reputable” subcontractor to proceed and, “since this is not an option, it is our understanding that discussions ended at that point.” Kirk’s spokesman said the reasons were “overall fit, capabilities, timelines and staffing.”

Creamer and other StrongMind executives were also intent on removing the company from the spotlight after learning that reporters were asking questions about its finances and operations, according to a person familiar with their thinking. Bendix said, “I have no knowledge and cannot offer comment on the personal opinions of executives.” He declined to make Creamer available for an interview.

Within Arizona, StrongMind is no stranger to scrutiny. A series of stories in the Arizona Republic described how a charter school founded by Creamer and owned by StrongMind, Primavera Online, receives state tax dollars and then directs millions to StrongMind for software and curriculum services.

The arrangement is legal because Primavera has received an exemption from procurement regulations that apply to traditional public schools, leading government watchdogs and some public officials to call for stricter regulation. A recent audit suggested that Creamer, as StrongMind’s lone shareholder, collected at least $3.5 million from the firm last year.

In response to questions about the arrangement, Bendix said the charter school “is in compliance with applicable federal and state laws related to the use of public funds and accounting for the use of these funds.” In a 2018 opinion column responding to the Arizona Republic’s findings, Creamer stressed his school’s “immense value … to the people of Arizona.”

StrongMind employees were told last week that efforts to build software destined for Turning Point Academy were on hold. On Slack, the online messaging platform, some employees reacted with a crying face emoji, others with a tombstone emoji, according to screenshots reviewed by The Post.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.