Arkansas is using federal coronavirus relief funds to buy children's books about the coronavirus for distribution to schools in the state that are produced by a company co-founded by former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The Department of Education inked a $245,300 deal with the Florida-based business EverBright Media to distribute "The Kids Guide to Coronavirus" booklets to Arkansas schools in 2020.
The department plans to spend $265,448 in federal funds on updated versions of the books this year, according to a purchase order provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by the department.
EverBright Media, whose associated children's educational material brands include The Kids Guide and Learn Our History, was founded by Huckabee in 2011, according to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
The Daily Beast, a national news website, was the first to report on the state's deal with EverBright in a Thursday article that focused mainly on history books for children that the company has published that have been criticized as right-wing propaganda.
Education Secretary Johnny Key announced the contract at one of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's then-daily coronavirus updates in August 2020, saying the books were distributed to every elementary school in the state, both public and private.
Kimberly Mundell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Key was aware of the connection to Huckabee, who was the state's governor from 1996 to 2007.
Mundell said the department was looking for coronavirus resources for parents when consultant and former Huckabee adviser Chad Gallagher reached out.
In an email sent on behalf of Huckabee and EverBright, Gallagher said Huckabee is the co-founder of the company with Brad Saft, who is the CEO who oversees and runs the company. Gallagher said he serves Huckabee, Saft and EverBright as clients of his firm, Legacy Consulting.
"Secretary Key felt the resource guide was parent friendly and a good resource, so ADE pursued the purchase of the books," Mundell said in an email.
In announcing the purchase of the booklets last year, Key said they were bought with money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. He described them as a "kid-friendly guide so that our students can understand what they're dealing with."
He said they would help children "have a better understanding of why we are asking them to wear masks," then spoke about the availability of personal protective equipment in schools and shipments of masks.
But the booklet doesn't talk about the benefits of mask-wearing. Though they encourage children to social distance, wash their hands and use good hygiene, one section discouraging hoarding of supplies states in part that "face masks aren't recommended as a way of preventing Coronavirus for healthy people."
Early in the pandemic, Americans were discouraged from wearing medical masks in order to preserve supplies for health care workers. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on Americans to wear masks to prevent covid-19 spread in July 2020, citing in a news release two studies showing the effectiveness of cloth masks.
Asked about the accuracy of the booklets' content, Mundell said by phone that "we definitely know a lot more about the virus now," and that the department was working with the company to produce an updated version to be shipped to schools for the 2021-22 school year, which for most students began last month.
Gallagher said the new guides "will be updated with the most current knowledge, information, and guidance from the State of Arkansas regarding Covid, including the importance of vaccines."
Educational materials are exempt from the state's procurement procedures, according to Mundell.
Huckabee's Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry notes that Learn Our History spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads promoting a "no-risk" deal for educational booklets such as "The Kids Guide to President Trump," but parents say it was a bait-and-switch scheme that tricked them into signing up for monthly subscriptions without their knowledge and ignored requests to cancel.
That issue was reported in the Daily Beast article, as well as in previous articles by the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and the Arkansas Times. Complaints to the Better Business Bureau that can be seen online make similar claims.
The coronavirus booklets distributed to Arkansas schools include an invitation to enter an essay contest for a chance to win a one-year subscription for The Kids Guide materials.
Gallagher said the company would not have a way of knowing or tracking if any current customers were first exposed to the company through that publication and subsequently acted.
"The publication did not include any advertisements or offers. The company has customers in all fifty states and there wouldn't be a way of tracking if they were a result of this particular print publication," he said.
Mundell, as well as another Learn Our History customer service representative, said they were not aware of any deals the state had to distribute other books from the company to Arkansas schools.
Gallagher said Friday that he was unsure if any other jurisdictions had bought products from the company over the years.
Huckabee previously lived in Florida but returned to Arkansas in December 2020. His daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is seeking the Republican nomination for Arkansas governor in 2022.