Oct. 15, 2012 — -- Elementary school students in the poor, struggling school district of Macon, Ga., where the graduation rate was 51 percent last year, are being taught Mandarin Chinese in hope they will get a leg up -- but some worry there could be more to the language program than meets the eye.
The city of Macon partnered with China and its Hanban Confucius Institute, whose mission is to improve the country's image abroad.
China trains the instructors and pays half of their salaries so that all 25 elementary schools could learn Mandarin Chinese.
According to the Chinese government, the effort is not occurring just in Macon. China has language teachers in 75 universities around the U.S. as well as nearly in 300 primary and middle schools.
Critics, including some China experts and conservatives in Congress, however, worry that what may begin as a simple and attractive language program could become a stealth public-relations campaign for a communist government with a terrible human rights record.
"You don't want other countries propagandizing your children," said political science professor June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami.
In a cartoon from the "For Kids" section of the Confucius Institute website, the Korean War was named "the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea."
The cartoon was recently pulled from the website. ABC News was turned away when it visited the institute's headquarters to get a response.
Bibb County Schools Superintendent Romain Dallemand said he had not seen the cartoon.
Dallemand said, however, that U.S. teachers were always present during the Mandarin Chinese lessons and that Mandarin Chinese language teachers were not showing videos of that nature to district children.
"I can tell you that we are very much in charge of the curriculum that is delivered in our classroom," he told ABC News. "We have all the curriculum that they deliver."
"I don't get into politics," Dallemand said. "I'm an educator. I'm here to educate our kids."
The Hanban Confucius Institute has many prominent defenders, including the College Board. It called the program a great way to strengthen ties between the U.S. and China.
In an emailed statement, the State Department said: "The United States is committed to strong, sustained support for educational and cultural exchange, including the learning of critical languages. We strongly support people-to-people cooperation in our cultural exchanges."
In Macon, some parents have voiced their concern.
"I don't have a problem with the language itself," said one, Eric Arnold. "It's the way it's being presented by the institute that leaves questions."