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DPI at odds with education gaming company with ties to GOP

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The CEO of an online educational gaming company donated more than $40,000 combined to the North Carolina Republican Party and the North Carolina Republican Senate Caucus, around the same time his company, Plasma Games, received $6.3 million in the last two state budgets.

Plasma Games aims to teach middle and high school science standards through an online platform and classroom materials. Hunter Moore, the company’s founder and CEO, said the donations and the allocations in the state budgets were unrelated.

“Any donations that I have made have nothing to do with our business,” Moore told WUNC.

Moore conceived of the science-based game while pursuing an MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he received a state contract for a pilot launch in Fall 2020. Moore says at the time he presented his business model to Democratic and Republican politicians, which he says garnered bipartisan support.

However, the 2019 standalone bill for Plasma Games’ pilot program never received a full vote by the General Assembly, and the company never bid for a state contract. Lawmakers instead voted on funding for Plasma Games as a line item in state budgets that are many hundreds of pages long.

In the most recent two state budgets in 2021 and 2023, Plasma Games received $2.5 million and $4.8 million respectively, to fund grants to public schools to use its online platform and materials.

In October of 2022, just as federal money for the pilot program was running out and before state money was allocated, Moore gave $35,000 to the North Carolina Republican Party, and another $5,600 to North Carolina Republican Senate caucus, according to Open Secrets.

Prior to those large donations, Moore had been an infrequent and small donor to Republicans, giving $700 in 2019 to Paul Newby, a candidate for NC Supreme Court, and a total of $450 to Dan Forest in his race for governor in 2020.

State education officials report Plasma Games funding has gone unused

Last week, state education officials reported that public schools largely aren’t using the grant funding they’ve received to get licenses for students to log in to the game, but Plasma Plasma Games is seeking full payment of the $3 million allocated in the last state budget for the program this school year.

In a draft reportto the General Assembly, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) reports that among the 22 school districts that received grants to access Plasma Games in Fall 2023, 69% of student licenses purchased had never been used by students.

“We're paying for a program that students aren't using,” Deputy State Superintendent Michael Maher told the state board of education last Thursday.

Maher says public schools in the grant program didn’t provide evidence for any improvements in student academic outcomes, or any evidence of increased student interest in STEM career fields, which is Plasma Games’ stated goal.

As of January, DPI reports that $1.25 million in state funds has already been paid to Plasma Games for student licenses that weren’t used.

Maher told the state board that he met with Plasma Games CEO Hunter Moore about the contract. Maher said in that meeting, Moore argued that DPI should pay Plasma Games the full funds that were allocated to the company in the state budget.

“We did have a meeting with the vendor and a legislator where this was all expressed to us that in effect, we're not fulfilling the requirement of the law, which I think we are,” Maher said.

DPI provided confirmation of the meeting to WUNC in the form of a screenshot of Maher’s calendar that shows Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), chair of the House education appropriations committee, attended the meeting. Torbett did not respond to a request for comment from WUNC.

“We have since been told that their funding model has changed,” Maher told the state board, explaining that Plasma Games expected more funding than received.

“Good luck with that,” responded the board’s vice chair Alan Duncan.

“It has been frustrating for both the department and the board at a time of significant needs for resources that these were pegged in such a direct way,” Duncan added. “For whatever reason, our districts are not voting with their feet to embrace this particular approach.”

Most of the school districts in the pilot program never applied again for future grants.

Moore told WUNC that public school teachers are using Plasma Games’ platform and supporting classroom materials “four times more” than state education officials have reported, but that the usage is not reflected in student log-ins.

Moore said half of teachers who use Plasma Games in their classroom use offline materials, such as readings and homework assignments that they can print out. Moore also noted that DPI’s report on student log-ins only accounts for one of two semesters in the 2023-2024 school year, and he said Plasma Games also serves teachers in school districts that did not apply for grants.

Correction: This article has been corrected with the correct amount for which Plasma Games is seeking payment. It is $3 million.

Politics EducationPolitics
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org