Looking at figures dating back to 2009, the watchdog group Parents Defending Education has uncovered $17.9 million that flowed to 143 U.S. schools in 34 states over several years as part of the “Confucius Classrooms” program.
“Confucius Classrooms” may sound vaguely familiar to many because the college-level equivalent is the “Confucius Institute.” That program was common on 100-plus college and university campuses until the FBI warned schools China was using that access to steal technology, and even recruit spies, on college and university campuses across the U.S.
In 2020, the U.S. State Department designated the Confucius Institute a “foreign mission” of the People’s Republic of China, which shut that door on China’s espionage efforts on college campuses.
In an April 2022 story, former CIA officer Sam Faddis told AFN that China’s National Intelligence Law requires Chinese citizens living and working abroad to consider themselves the legal eyes and ears for their homeland. That law was enacted in 2017.
In a similar investigation, Parents Defending Education says the similar K-12 program is attempting to build relationships with schools, teachers, and students.
"You had sister-school partnerships,” explains PDE spokesperson Alex Nester. “You had Chinese student-exchange programs, and Chinese language and culture programs."
According to its detailed “Little Red Classrooms” report, PDE says the China Ministry of Education is listed as the sponsor and funder of the “Confucius Classrooms” program. Citing troubling findings by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. State Department, PDE points out the United Front Work Department, the propaganda operation of the Chinese Communist Party, is really behind what appears to be an international educational partnership.
In some of those K-12 partnerships, PDE learned, the Confucius Institute at a local college campus funded and sponsored the Confucius Classroom, such as at Portland University in Oregon, the University of Texas in Dallas, and St. Cloud University in Minnesota.
Some of those partnerships involved just a $1,000 grant, Nester advises, but a well-known STEM program in Virginia, at Thomas Jefferson High, benefitted from more than $1 million that flowed from China over a 10-year period.
In its “Little Red Classrooms,” Parents Defending Education noticed China seems particularly interested in STEM programs, not only at Thomas Jefferson High but also at similar nationally-recognized STEM programs in North Carolina and Kentucky.
Parents Defending Education also noticed a “Confucius Classroom” was introduced in schools that surround 20 military bases around the U.S.
“That's why it's so important for districts to be transparent about their spending, but also the money that they received,” Nester warns. “We think all these contracts should be public so parents and the community can know, for example, if they are fostering ties with a foreign adversary."