21st Century Anti-intellectualism

NYU's 2016 graduation ceremony
NYU’s 2016 graduation ceremony, Yankee Stadium (Jeff Burgess)

I recently attended New York University’s 184th commencement ceremony. I felt a bit like a traitor being there, because it was held at Yankee Stadium and I grew up a Detroit Tigers baseball fan. But it’s the Yankees’ fancy new stadium, not the original one, and I was there to see my daughter graduate with honors.

The ceremony was amazing, and not just because of the spectacular venue. It included the bestowment of honorary degrees to some outstanding individuals. One of them was given to John Lewis, the iconic black civil rights activist who risked his life alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the South in the 1960s, getting repeatedly beaten and arrested for protesting against discrimination. Another was given to Emmanuelle Charpentier, a scientist who’s recent work on genome editing is helping to revolutionize medical treatments. The celebrity Billy Crystal also received one for his outstanding career in the entertainment industry, along with his many contributions to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts .

There were also several inspirational speeches given by various faculty members and students. Each speech was unique and interesting in its own way. But they all shared a common theme: The real purpose of education isn’t to simply help graduates find good jobs, but to broaden minds, encourage the use of science to solve problems, promote social justice, and continually seek the truth.

I confess these speeches brought tears to my eyes. One reason, of course, was that I was very proud of my daughter for graduating from such a prestigious institution. But also because they reminded me of how low are nation’s standards have recently sunk in regards to the respect for knowledge and truth.

A couple of the speakers helped to remind everybody of that with some thinly veiled references to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But the ongoing assault on public education by Republicans in Arizona is just as troubling. According to reports by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending on Arizona’s K-12 public school students has fallen 17.5 percent since 2008, the third-deepest rate of school budget cuts in the nation. And a recent U.S. Census Bureau report showed that the state’s school spending is about 33 percent below the national average of $10,700, and 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Furthermore, while these cuts were being implemented, private school tax credits were expanded.

As for higher education in Arizona, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued another report that showed no other state has cut state university funding more since the Great Recession. This year’s budget restored a portion of the $99 million Ducey and the legislature cut from the state’s universities last year, but $5 million of it is earmarked for so-called freedom schools – think tanks established by the Koch brothers to promote a radical libertarian ideology that includes the privatization of the public schools.

The vast majority of Arizona’s voters didn’t support these cuts. A survey conducted last fall, for example, found that 69% opposed the $99 million cut to university spending, and only 36% supported raiding the state’s First Things First early childhood development program to help fund K-12 schools.

“As people do better, they start voting like Republicans – unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.” – Republican strategist Karl Rove

Republican Governor Doug Ducey and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature were forced to respond to this widespread opposition to their education funding cuts. They passed a ballot initiative, called Proposition 123, that proposed to distribute more funds to public schools from State Trust land revenues. The voters narrowly approved it in May. But the primary objective of these Republicans in submitting this proposal to the voters wasn’t to adequately fund the schools, but to make it possible for more tax decreases, so they can continue to implement a dubious supply-side economic strategy for the state.

The refusal of Arizona Republicans to adequately fund public schools highlights the lack of respect they have for education. This attitude is exemplified by the influential Arizona Republican Assembly, a group dedicated to promoting “true conservative” candidates for office. Their principles say that, “We must insure no school or teachers’ union can compromise the education of our children or advance a particular political agenda at the expense of our future generation’s education.” In other words, they believe education should promote a conservative ideology, and they reject the classic liberal education that has served Western civilization so well.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t a new phenomenon in the United States. But this modern version being nurtured by conservative dark money lords and their Republican marionettes is especially dangerous because the world is growing increasingly complicated and voters need to be well-informed. The answers to modern problems aren’t simple and can’t be solved by putting up walls.

The Arizona Ministries of Truth

George Orwell
George Orwell Wikipedia

Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey, in cooperation with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, allocated $5 million in the state’s FY 2017 budget for three “freedom schools” at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. The money will go to the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, ASU’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership, and ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty. These three schools were established with seed money from the Charles Koch Foundation, an organization that promotes a radical libertarian ideology. The billionaire Koch brothers provided millions in “dark money” support for Ducey’s 2014 election campaign.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, no other state has cut university funding more than Arizona since the Great Recession. Last year, for example, Ducey and the Legislature reduced state university funding by $99 million. This year’s budget restores just $32 million, but $5 million of it is earmarked for the so-called freedom schools – or about 15% of the increased funding.

Ducey’s spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato defended the earmark by saying the governor “believes it’s important that students in our university system are exposed to a broad range of viewpoints and academic views on a number of issues, including economics.”

Several Republican legislators also voiced their support. Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, a former conservative radio talk show host, said the money represents “a wonderful opportunity” to fund conservative viewpoints, which he claims are lacking at the state’s universities.

But Arizona Republicans weren’t concerned about encouraging different viewpoints when the they passed HB 2281 in 2010. That law was used to stop Mexican-American studies classes from being taught in Tucson’s public schools. John Huppenthal, Arizona’s school superintendent at the time, helped get it passed because he claimed the classes taught Mexican-American students to resent Anglos.

If Republicans are so concerned about the quality of the information that’s being given to the state’s students, then why aren’t they concerned about what’s being taught at the freedom schools? Dr. William Boyes, for instance, the founding director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, is advocating for the elimination of public schools. He gave a speech last fall in support of the School Sucks Project in which he rejected the belief held by most Americans that public schools are a foundation of our democracy. He called for the end of public schools, saying they are our biggest obstacle to greater personal and political liberty.

Furthermore, Dr. Boyes in an advocate of the Austrian School of economic thought, which is promoted by the Mises Institute.  Austrian School economic theory advocates the concept of methodological individualism – that social phenomena result from the motivations and actions of individuals. It rejects the use of econometrics and macroeconomic analysis. Instead, it calls for the government to be dismembered so the free market can magically solve all problems.

If this doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s because it doesn’t. There aren’t any reputable economists that believe in it. But, not coincidentally, Austrian School economic theory can be used to justify a radical libertarian political ideology.

Updates

On May 5, 2017, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature approved a FY 2018 state budget that gave another  $2 million to the state’s “freedom schools” at the U of A and ASU. This was in addition to their ongoing $5 million annual appropriation. Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who pushed for the funding, claimed the schools are needed to counteract the widespread “liberal indoctrination” that’s going on at the state’s universities.

On September 8, 2017, Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities, for significantly increasing tuition and thereby failing to make college education as “as nearly free as possible, ” as required by the state’s constitution.

On April 26, 2018, the The Maricopa County Superior Court dismissed Brnovich’s lawsuit, saying he lacked the standing to sue the state’s universities over their tuition rates.

On May 3, 2018, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature approved a FY 2019 state budget that included another  $2.5 million for the state’s “freedom schools.” This was in addition to the ongoing $5 million annual appropriation. Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the money was needed to help balance “left-wing bias” at the state’s universities. The U of A and ASU will each receive $1 million more, and Northern Arizona University will get $500,000 to establish a new school there. This brought total appropriations to the Arizona Freedom Schools to $19.5 million.

On January 10, 2018, Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities, in Tax Court because they approved Arizona State University’s strategy of raising revenue by encouraging for-profit companies to build on university-owned land, which is exempt from property taxes.

On March 21, 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to cut off federal aid to universities that don’t allow “free speech” on their campuses. His action was in response to claims by conservatives that universities were not allowing conservatives to give speeches on campuses.

Arizona’s School Tax Credit Mess

Arizona state flag
Arizona state flag

State spending on Arizona’s K-12 public school students has fallen 17.5 percent since 2008, the third-deepest rate of school budget cuts in the nation, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And a recent U.S. Census Bureau report showed that the state’s school spending rate fell for a third straight year in fiscal 2013, to $7,208 per student, about 33 percent below the national average of $10,700, and 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Furthermore, an Arizona court decision last fall found that the Republican-controlled legislature illegally diverted money generated by Proposition 301 that was intended for schools. Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper issued a judgment requiring the state to increase funding to K-12 public schools by making an initial payment of $317 million as part of a total of $1.6 billion in payments over five years. But so far the legislature hasn’t sent a penny of this money to the schools.

While the legislature was busy cutting school spending it was also reducing the available tax revenue by cutting Arizona business taxes, which legislative budget analysts estimate will cost the state about $538 million in tax revenue by 2018.

To make matters even worse, the legislature has simultaneously increased income tax credit programs for school-related donations. This may sound like a good idea, but the donations are creating gross inequities between rich and poor school districts. The Arizona Department of Revenue (ADOR) estimated about $174 million in school tax credits were diverted from the state’s general fund in 2014, with about $123 million of that going to private schools, including religious schools.

Tax Credits Are Too Easy to Claim

But the situation might even be worse than that because of the way the ADOR tracks these school tax credits. Households that claim a tax credit by giving a donation to a public school to help fund extracurricular activities must complete and submit ADOR Form 322. But even though the school districts provide receipts to the people who make these donations, ADOR doesn’t require taxpayers to include copies of these receipts with their tax returns. And while Form 322 requires the taxpayer to name the school district that got their donation, there’s no easy was for ADOR to verify these claims because the district’s name is simply written or typed on the form, and not normalized with an ID code that could be cross-checked with a database. This same process, along with Form 323,  is used by taxpayers claiming donations to private school tuition organizations.

Subsequently, Arizona taxpayers can easily claim unverified credits that reduce their annual income tax obligation dollar for dollar. In regards to the public school tax credits, single taxpayers can claim up to a $200 annual credit, and married ones up to $400. Taxpayers claiming a credit for donations to private school tuition organizations can claim up to $528 for a single household, and up to $1056 for a married household. It’s difficult to believe there aren’t a lot of people claiming these credits that didn’t really make the donations – further reducing the public funds available to schools.

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