In 2016 Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature, in cooperation with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, passed a state budget bill that gave $3 million to each of two “freedom schools” at the state’s two biggest universities. The so-called freedom schools had previously received startup money from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation.
The University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom is the older of the two schools. It was founded in 2008 by Philosophy Professor David Schmidtz, and is popularly called the “Freedom Center.” He was able to expand it in 2010 after he received $1.8 million from Koch.
The newer school, Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, was created in 2016 when the budget bill combined the university’s existing Center for Political Thought and Leadership and Center for the Study of Economic Liberty. They were founded in 2014 using at least $4.5 million received from Koch.
But the $6 million appropriation to the freedom schools in 2016 drew widespread criticism for several reasons. First of all, many people suspected it was a political payback for the $8.2 million in outside “dark money, ” much of it from the Kochtopus, which had helped Ducey win the 2014 gubernatorial election.
Also, there was concern the schools would indoctrinate students in the irrational libertarian ideology promoted by the Koch brothers. Dr. William Boyes, for instance, the founding director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, advocated for the elimination of public schools, and called them the biggest obstacle to greater personal and political liberty. He was also an advocate of the radical Austrian School of economic thought, promoted by the Mises Institute, which calls for the government to be dismembered so the free market can magically solve all problems.
The biggest complaints, however, were about why the Legislature had made funding for the freedom schools a priority when Arizona had cut state university funding more than any other state in response to the Great Recession – and hadn’t restored it. In the 2015 budget bill, for example, they had reduced state university funding by $99 million, and just $32 million of that was restored in 2016 bill, with $6 million of that earmarked for freedom schools.
Gov. Ducey’s spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato defended the earmarks 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.” State Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said the money was needed to, “teach our young people about the virtues of free enterprise,” and called it “an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.” And former conservative radio talk show host state Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, said the money represents “a wonderful opportunity” because, “The universities in Arizona – two of them – have an education and professors who do not adhere to conservative thoughts and rules or the conservative attitude toward government.”
In 2017 the Legislature gave more money to the freedom schools in the state’s FY2018 budget bill. ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership got another an additional $3 million, while the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom received another $2.5 million. But that wasn’t all. The Legislature also gave each of them another $1 million for “operating expenditures.” This money was included in the appropriations the Legislature awarded each university for capital improvements and operating expenditures. ASU received a total of $7,639,500, and the U of A $4,157,700 for these purposes campus-wide. The extra $1 million for each freedom school was 13% of ASU’s total, and 24% of the U of A’s.
The Arizona Legislature made similar appropriations in 2018 to the freedom schools in the state’s FY2019 budget bill. It repeated the $3 million for ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and the $2.5 million for the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. It also gave each of them another $1 million for “operating expenditures.” Again, this money was included in the total appropriations given to each university for capital improvements and operating expenditures. This time the extra $1 million was 24% of the $4,245,000 total that ASU received, and 46% of the $2,164,800 total the U of A received.
The additional money was awarded to the freedom schools despite a report from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting that found they still hadn’t spent $9.8 million of the money the Legislature had already given them. State Senate Appropriations Committee Chair John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, defended the extra money for the freedom schools because he believed they provided an ideological balance, as they helped to counter a “left-wing bias” at the universities.
In 2019 the Legislature gave more money to the freedom schools in the state’s FY 2020 budget bill. This time they gave $3,023,800 to ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and $2,526,500 to the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. No additional funds, however, were appropriated to the schools for operating expenditures.
In the meantime, critics attacked the two freedom schools for being political propaganda tools of the Koch brothers. A group of Tucson residents, along with some U of A faculty, alumni, and students formed a group called Kochs Off Campus to get the University to sever all ties with the Freedom Center. Prof. Schmidtz denied that Charles Koch had ever influenced or interfered with the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom’s operations.
It appears that ASU responded to the criticism by giving its School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership a makeover. Dr. Boyes is no longer the director of the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty. And Paul Carrese, the founding director of the parent School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, has challenged critics to reconsider their preconceived notions about the school. In April 2019 the school announced it had created a diverse advisory council called the National Board of Counselors, co-chaired by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former Democratic lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Jon Kyl, former Republican U.S. senator from Arizona.
But whatever the freedom schools might eventually accomplish, the Legislature’s inclination to mandate curricula at Arizona’s universities, and spend lots of scarce tax dollars to do it, is disturbing. This is particularly so because at the same time the Legislature was appropriating millions to the freedom schools, while simultaneously failing to restore university funding, Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued the Arizona Board of Regents 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.)
During the March 2017 opening of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Gov. Ducey and conservative political commentator George Will spoke about how the preservation of the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, especially on campus, was one of the school’s primary missions. But it seems that Arizona Republicans are only concerned about preserving the free speech rights of conservatives. The Legislature, for example, has prohibited the state’s universities from spending money on student newspapers, lawsuits by law students to help inmates in state prisons, and medical marijuana research. These restrictions were imposed by hiding them in the fine print of annual budget bills.
And in 2010 the Legislature passed, and Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed, HB 2281, sponsored by state Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchield Park, to stop Mexican-American studies classes from being included in the curricula of Tucson’s public schools. Republican John Huppenthal, Arizona’s school superintendent at the time, supported the bill because he claimed the classes taught Mexican-American students to resent Anglos. In 2017, however, a federal judge found that the law violated the U.S. Constitution.
The Republican-controlled Legislature attacked free speech rights again in 2016 when it passed HB 2617, sponsored by state House Speaker David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, and signed by Gov. Ducey, to prevent state agencies from contracting with businesses that boycotted Israeli because of Israel’s controversial treatment of Palestinians. In 2018 a federal judge struck down the law because it violated the free speech rights of businesses. That didn’t deter the Legislature, however, because in 2019 state Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, reintroduced the bill with slightly different language, and it was passed and signed again.
In 2020 the Arizona Legislature gave more money to the freedom schools in the state’s FY 2021 budget bill. This time they gave $3,008,900 to ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and $2,526,500 to the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom – for a total of $5,535,400.
On September 16, 2020, the U of A’s University-wide General Education Committee voted not to approve a proposed course, PPEL 101, for general education status after presentations about it were given by David Schmidtz, Director of the university’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, and history professor David Gibbs.
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