The Arizona Ministries of Truth

George OrwellIn 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.

The Legislature had previously given the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom $500,000 a year in 2013, 2014, and 2015. But those appropriations hadn’t attracted much political attention.

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. 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 $2,5526,500 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 boycott 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.

The Truth About Arizona’s Environmental License Plates

Arizona Environmental License Plate
Arizona Environmental License Plate – original design

Thousands of Arizona’s motor vehicle owners have purchased a specialty license plate believing a portion of the extra fee they paid for it would go to a good cause. But some specialty plate owners would be surprised to learn where their money really went.

Earlier this year, for example, state Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, introduced SB 1463 to repeal the creation of the “In God We Trust” specialty plate after an inquiry prompted by the Secular Coalition for Arizona prompted the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to reveal that the fundamentalist Christian non-profit group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) received the donations generated from their sales. This revelation upset many people because in 2017 the Southern Poverty Law Center declared the ADF to be an anti-LGBT hate group since it supports the recriminalization of homosexuality and promotes a “religious liberty”  agenda that justifies discrimination against LGBT people. (In 2017 the ADF disrupted a Tempe Union High School District public meeting about sex education, and they are representing two Phoenix conservative Christian wedding invitation designers in their legal battle against a 2013 city ordinance that bans businesses from discriminating against LGBT customers.)

Arizona has more than 60 specialty plates, but ADOT doesn’t decide what plates are available. The plates are created by the Arizona Legislature after a non-profit organization succeeds in convincing enough legislators to pass a bill to authorize a new specialty plate for their cause. Then the non-profit must pay a $32,000 fee for the production and implementation of the new plate before they can start to collect their $17 share of the plate’s $25 fee.

Usually, the nonprofit organization that receives the money from the plate sales is identified in the law the Legislature passes to create the plate. But that didn’t happen when the Legislature passed HB 2046 in 2008 to create the “In God We Trust” plates. Rep. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, succeeded in getting the bill amended to include the creation of the plates without identifying the non-profit group that would receive the resultant donations, or describing their purpose. This legal ambiguity delayed the issuance of the plates until after 2011, when SB 1402, sponsored by Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, was passed. This bill still didn’t identify the group that would receive the donations from the plates, but said the purpose of the plates was, “to promote the national motto ‘In God We Trust,’ First Amendment rights and the heritage of this state and nation.”

This was the purpose ADOT described for potential purchasers of the plates. But ADOT didn’t include the fact the ADF was the group receiving the donations from their sales until after the controversy generated by the introduction of Sen. Mendez’ bill – which never received a hearing in the Republican-controlled 2019 Arizona Legislature.

The History Of Arizona’s “Environmental” Specialty Plate

Arizona’s  “Environmental” specialty plate is another one that generates donations for a purpose that’s different from what many people think it is. These plates were created in 1990 as part of HB 2675, sponsored by Rep. Karan English, D-Flagstaff, and signed by Democratic Gov. Rose Mofford, to mandate environmental education in Arizona’s public schools. It required the  Arizona Department of Education to assist local school districts with the implementation of environmental curriculums using the funds collected from the sales of the plates. This was followed by the passage of SB 1176 the following year to establish the Arizona Environmental Education Task Force. This diverse 17-member committee was tasked with drafting a “coordinated environmental education program” for the state, and in early 1992 they issued their Comprehensive Plan for Environmental Education. Later that year, Republican Gov. Fife Symington, who had won a runoff election in February 1991, unveiled the winning design for the new “Environmental” plates, expressing enthusiasm for their purpose while attaching one to his state car.

Ultra-conservative Republicans in the Legislature, however, were opposed to the new environmental education program and in 1993 they passed HB 2198, sponsored by state Rep. Lela Steffey, R-Mesa, which removed the program’s funding starting in 1996 by ordering that issuance of the “Environmental” specialty plates be stopped at the end of 1995. The passage of this bill prompted the director of the Department of Education, Democratic State Superintendent of Public Instruction C. Diane Bishop, to send a written request to state Senate President John Greene to rescind the termination of the plates during the 1994 legislative session.

In the meantime, Supt. Bishop began setting up the new environmental education program for the state’s public schools. It included teacher training, regional environmental education resource centers, and the opportunity for schools to apply for environmental education grants.

But in the spring of 1994 Republican legislators continued their assault against the environmental education program by passing SB 1122 . This bill, sponsored by Sen. Keith Bee, R-Tucson, rescinded the termination of the “Environmental” specialty plates, but it revised the purpose of the environmental education program. It removed the words, “develop positive attitudes and values toward the environment and encourage civic and social responsibility toward environmental issues,” and replaced them with, “the presentation of various economic and scientific issues.” It also revised the meaning of environmental education to remove the consideration of “resource depletion” and “urban and rural planning.” SB 1122 also established the Arizona Advisory Council on Environmental Education (AACEE). It had nine members appointed by the Governor, with the Governor having the power to designate the chair and vice-chair. But the AACEE, was given few specific responsibilities – just a political advisory role.

But the biggest change implemented by SB 1122 was an amendment pushed by agriculture, ranching, and mining interests that created the Environmental Education Curriculum Review Committee to “revise any environmental education curriculum adopted before the effective date of this act so that the curriculum complies with the provisions of this act.” The committee was required to produce a report by February 1996. These changes delayed the implementation of Supt. Bishop’s environmental education program.

Republican supporters of the bill defended it by claiming that it was needed in order to bring “balance” to environmental education in the state’s schools. Senate Majority Leader Tom Patterson, R-Phoenix, said there was a concern that the state’s environmental education guidelines had an, “Earth-worshipping tone,” and were “really more advocacy than education.” And Rep. Russell “Rusty” Bowers, R-Mesa, said they, “represented theory as fact and encouraged political activism.”

In the fall of 1994 Republican Lisa Graham Keegan won the election for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. When she assumed office in early 1995 she cancelled Bishop’s program and proposed to simply distribute the money from the plate sales, with no strings attached, to the state’s schools on a student population basis. She explained that she was philosophically opposed to the environmental education mandate, and that, “My preference is to take the law off the books.” The chair of the AACEE pointed out that her proposal didn’t comply with the law.

At the same time, the Environmental Education Curriculum Review Committee, chaired by Rep. Bowers, was having meetings. The committee spent most of its time reviewing an alternative set of environmental education guidelines drafted by Michael Sanera, who was an associate professor of political science and public administration at Northern Arizona University. Sanera is probably best know as the author of the 1996 book Facts, Not Fear: Teaching Children about the Environment, which is touted as “a guidebook countering the irresponsible claims of environmental extremists.”

But the committee never produced its report, and Supt. Graham Keegan’s proposal wasn’t implemented, because in early 1995 Republican legislators passed more bills to dismantle the environmental education program. SB 1348, sponsored by state Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, made environmental education optional in Arizona’s schools. And HB 2274, sponsored by Rep. Bowers, completely revised the program. The bill transferred all monies collected from the sales of “Environmental” specialty plates to the Arizona State Land Department. It instructed the Department to encourage each of the state’s approximately 30 local Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCDs) to establish an education center, so they could then apply to the Department for environmental education grants. Critics pointed out that NRCDs, which are administered by the Land Department, were set up to serve the economic interests of local private landowners, especially ranchers. The Hereford NRCD in southeastern Arizona, for example, supported the Bureau of Land Management’s 2018 proposal to increase cattle grazing on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area by about 375%. Rep. Bowers defended the change by claiming that NRCDs would provide a “broader spectrum of educational opportunities.”

HB 2274 allowed the Land Department to direct up to 50% of the money generated from the sales of “Environmental” plates to the NRCDs. The rest of the money was to be administered for the Department by the AACEE. HB 2274 had also revised the membership of the AACEE. It increased its membership to 10, and allowed the Senate President and Speaker of the House to each appoint three members, instead of the Governor appointing all of them. The Governor, however, continued to have the power to designate the chair and vice-chair. The reconfigured AACEE was tasked with awarding environmental education grants to local schools. All of the grants distributed from the Land Department were required to be used for “environmental education programs that are based on current scientific information and include discussions of economic and social implications.”

In 1997, however, Democratic legislators complained that more than $1.3 million collected from the sales of the plates was sitting idle because  the AACEE had not awarded any environmental education grants to the state’s schools, while the Land Department had already started distributing money to the NRCDs. Part of the problem, the Democrats claimed, was that the Republican leaders of the Senate and House had dragged their feet appointing AACEE members, and hadn’t provided the advisory committee with paid staff. AACEE members said they would probably begin disbursing the grants by the end of the year.

Arizona’s schools subsequently received environmental education grants from the AACEE until 2002. That year Republican Gov. Jane Hull proposed to terminate the AACEE and end the environmental education grants to local schools. All of the money collected from the sales of “Environmental” plates would be allocated to fund the state’s NRCDs, although some of it would still be allocated for the environmental educations grants distributed by the NRCDs. Hull defended the proposal as a budget balancing strategy to reduce the amount of money allocated to the NRCDs from the state’s general fund. But it drew widespread criticism and Monica Pastor, the AACEE chairwoman, pointed out they had distributed $399,000 in environmental education grants to local schools the previous year which had helped fund 472 student field trips. Hull and the Republican-controlled Legislature subsequently buried the measure in the state’s FY2003 budget bill.

Hereford NRCD
Cochise County, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

No money from the sales of “Environmental” specialty plates has gone to the schools since then, it’s all been sent to the Land Department, which has forwarded it to the state’s Natural Resource Conservation Districts. The NRCDs are supposed to use some of it for environmental education grants. But that’s not always the case, as the recent annual reports from the Hereford NRCD’s education center, for example, show that little environmental education was done with the money they received.

According to ADOT, sales of the “Environmental” specialty plates generated about $143,000 in FY2016, $145,000 in FY 2017, and $142,000 FY 2018. It’s likely that a lot of the vehicle owners who purchased them weren’t aware the money wasn’t used to help fund environmental education programs in local schools.

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.

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