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’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.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Shows His True Colors

doug ducey
Doug Ducey (Gage Skidmore)

In the same week that the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report showing that the amount Arizona spends on public education per student is falling, and is now among the lowest in the nation, newly-elected Republican Governor Doug Ducey announced his plan to increase school spending.

Ducey said that he would work with the state legislature to draft a ballot initiative for the 2016 election (Proposition 123) to ask the voters if they want to distribute more of the money generated from State Trust lands to help fund K-12 schools. The state’s constitution currently limits the amount that can be distributed to 2.5% annually, so Ducey wants voters to approve a temporary increase to 10% for the next five years, and then 5% annually after that. He said it would provide more than $2 billion to the state’s schools during the next decade.

The money would certainly help the state’s schools, but it wouldn’t be available until after the fall 2016 election. Furthermore, special interests may convince the legislature to tack on extra measures as they craft the initiative’s language. Ranchers who lease state lands, for example, have been trying for years to get more favorable state grazing regulations, despite the fact that they already pay only $2.78 per month per animal. And real estate developers who purchase state lands on the edges of urban areas have complained about the State Land Department’s comprehensive urban planning requirements.

But even if the legislature provides an initiative with clean language that most voters can support, it doesn’t mean that Ducey believes education funding should be a top government priority. This was obvious during his June 4th press conference wherein he announced his plan. He made a point of the fact that his strategy included “no new taxes.” And although he didn’t make a direct reference to the ongoing negotiations over the $317 million initial payment owed to the state’s schools because the legislature illegally diverted money generated by Proposition 301, he implied that his plan would make that dispute moot because it would “put all the legal disagreements and disputes behind us.” He also said that, “Our public schools say they need more money to do their jobs.” But he didn’t say that he agreed with them, and he admitted that none of the money generated by his plan would go to the state’s universities, which took a $99 million cut in the budget that was passed this year.

Still, the bottom line is that Ducey’s proposal, if passed by the voters, would help the state’s schools. But that doesn’t mean that increasing education funding is one of his top priorities. It’s obvious that the reduction and elimination of taxes is perhaps his only real priority, and that strong political opposition is the only thing that will divert him from this ideological bankruptcy.