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.

Arizona a Cesspool of Republican Politics

dead republican elephantThe voting fiasco in metro Phoenix during Arizona’s March 2016 presidential preference election highlighted the ideological bankruptcy of the modern Republican party, especially among Arizona Republicans.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into the botched election process in Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people and includes the city of Phoenix – the nation’s 5th most populous city. Federal investigators have submitted a list of documents for Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell and her elections director, Karen Osborne, to provide for review.

Purcell, a Republican, reduced the number of polling places in the county from 200 to 60, forcing some voters to wait in line for up to five hours, and making many give up and go home without voting. She did it with the approval of the county’s Republican-controlled board of supervisors. The primary reason, they all say, was to save money on the election. That excuse is backed up by the proceeds of a February board of supervisors meeting wherein its Republican members commended her proposal to save about $1 million by drastically reducing the number of polling places. The board had instructed Purcell to “to be as frugal as you can” because the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature had cut state contributions to the county’s federal election funding by $2.4 million.

Republican Governor Doug Ducey responded to the voting mess by releasing a statement calling for election officials to “make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He also called for a change to the state’s voting laws, so that voters registered as independents are allowed to vote in party primary elections. “If people want to take the time to vote they should be able to, and their vote should be counted,” he concluded.

Ducey’s call for open primary elections surprised many people, because the state’s Republican leadership sees closed primaries as a way to preserve the conservative ideological purity of their candidates. This, and the fact that Ducey supported the legislature’s funding cuts to county elections, have fueled speculation about his motive for releasing the statement.

Purcell and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors are claiming that the problems with the election were just the result of their bad mistakes. But even if that’s true, the election still highlighted the rotten heart of Arizona Republican policies:

  • Republican Governor Ducey’s post-election statement said he supported the right of citizens to vote, but he isn’t concerned about the rights of the voters who passed Proposition 301 in 2000 to enact a sales tax to increase the funding for public schools. The legislature illegally diverted this money, according to the courts. But instead of encouraging the legislature to follow the law and reinstate this funding, Ducey devised Proposition 123 and convinced the legislature to put it on the ballot. If approved, it would provide less money to the schools than Proposition 301 and accelerate payments to the schools from State Trust land – potentially depleting the funds available for schools in the future. It would also place a constitutional cap on the percentage of the state’s budget that can be devoted to schools. This would help Ducey continue to cut taxes at any cost as part of his implementation of a dubious supply-side economic strategy for state government.
  • The Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature deemed it more important to cut state spending than to adequately fund federal elections. But that didn’t stop them from scheduling a special statewide election in May for Governor Ducey’s Proposition 123. This election will cost the counties millions to administer, some estimates are $9.3 million, with Pima County estimating that it will cost them at least $1.2 million.
  • The Republican-controlled Maricopa Count Board of Supervisors was willing to reduce the number of polling places to save $1 million. This was in spite of the fact that they’ve taken no action against the county’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has cost county taxpayers an estimated $142 million in legal settlements, court awards and legal fees, and whose office was found guilty in federal court in 2013 of violating the rights of Latino citizens.

Arizona’s Public School Funding Battle

Arizona state flag
Arizona state flag

The Arizona Court of Appeals resumed legal proceedings last week in its review of a lower court’s decision in the lawsuit involving the Republican controlled Legislature and the state’s public school officials over the Legislature’s violation of the state’s constitution by ignoring Proposition 301. The  purpose of Proposition 301, which was approved by the voters in 2000, was to circumvent the Legislature’s chronic underfunding of the state’s schools by passing a 0.60% increase in the state’s sales tax rate, with the proceeds to be devoted to the state’s public school system.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper had issued a judgment in August of 2014 requiring the Legislature to comply with Proposition 301 by increasing state funding to K-12 public schools by making an initial payment of $317 million in fiscal 2014 as part of a total of $1.6 billion in payments over five years. But the legislature appealed that ruling and the appeal had been on hold pending negotiations between the two parties. Last week’s announcement by the Court of Appeals that further negotiations between the two parties would be fruitless means the Legislature must pay the schools the millions of dollars it owes them, but the Legislature has appealed that order and asked the court to delay ordering payments until the appeal is resolved.

After the court’s announcement Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, and House Speaker David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, proposed an alternative school funding plan that would provide significantly less money to the state’s schools than is required under Proposition 301. Their proposal included Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s recent controversial proposal to increase school funding.

Republican Complaints About School Administrative Costs Are a Red Herring Argument

red herringIt’s clear from the Republican legislative leaders’ reaction to the court’s decision that increasing school funding isn’t one of their priorities.  In fact, many Arizona Republicans are still trying to divert attention from the school funding issue by claiming that the state’s public schools could spend more money in their classrooms if they’d cut administrative expenses. But the Arizona Department of Education released a report in early August that compared the percentage of administrative expenses in the annual budgets of each of the state’s school districts. It showed that school administrative costs in Arizona were below the national average, and that one-to-one comparisons between the state’s school districts aren’t possible because of numerous variables. Even a spokesperson for Arizona Tax Research Association, a conservative anti-tax lobbying group, wondered if the report was “meaningful.”

The Department of Education’s report was the result of legislation passed several years ago by the Republican-controlled Legislature wherein all of state’s school districts were required to submit annual financial reports to the department. The idea was that publication and comparison of these reports would bring much needed light to local school budgets. Apparently it didn’t occur to Republican legislative leaders that the costs of creating the reports would increase school administrative expenses, or that school district budgets were the responsibility of locally elected school boards.

It’s clear that Arizona’s Republican leaders have been mesmerized by a radical Libertarian political ideology wherein the overriding issue is to minimize taxes – no matter the cost.  I don’t know if they’re so politically naive that they really believe in it, or if the conservative dark money groups promoting it are so generous with their donations that they can’t afford to disagree with it. But it’s never worked in the real world, and there’s plenty of evidence to show they are leading Arizona to ruin. It was recently reported, for example, that Arizona lost out on 3,000 new jobs because a couple of large companies decided against relocating to Phoenix because of they were afraid they couldn’t find good schools for their children and it would be difficult to recruit any outside talent that had school-aged children.

Updates

On January 8, 2018, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gave his annual state of the state speech wherein he addressed public school funding and promised to begin to “restore long-standing cuts from the recession made before many of us were here.” He did not, however, explain where the money would come from. A report from the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee in late 2017 estimated that there would be a $24 million shortfall in the state’s FY2018 budget which would likely grow to $80 million for FY2019, largely as a result of the corporate tax cuts supported by Ducey.

In late January 2018 a group called the Arizona Education Project began running TV ads to convince people that Arizona’s public schools were in better shape than most people believed. By March they had spent over $1 million on the ads, and planned to continue running them.

On March 28, 2018, thousands of teachers rallied at the state capital to hold a #RedForEd rally to demand more funding for education in Arizona.

On April 10, 2018, Gov. Ducey, criticized protesting teachers by saying that he wasn’t interested in meeting with people involved in the “political” #RedForEd movement.

On April 12, 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey announced a new budget proposal to increase teacher pay by 9% in the next school year, and a total of about 20% over a four year period.

On April 19, 2018, Arizona teachers voted to conduct a statewide teacher walkout on April 26. Their spokespersons explained that Gov. Ducey’s pay raise proposal was not sustainable under the current state revenue structure and would probably come at the expense of other needs.

On April 20, 2018, Gov. Ducey vetoed 10 bills and told state legislators to send him a budget that included his teacher pay raise proposal.

On April 23, 2018, Gov. Ducey said he didn’t know why teachers were planning to strike because the new budget he’d introduced promised them some bigger pay raises.

On April 26, 2018, about 50,000 teachers and school supporters rallied at the Arizona state capital to begin a statewide teacher walkout to demand that the state’s government make large increases to public education funding.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, May 3, the Arizona legislature passed a school funding  bill that was quickly signed by Gov. Ducey. Striking teachers and their supporters were still at the state capital and celebrated a partial victory but promised to keep working to achieve the rest of their goals.

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