The Freedom School Scam
By David Boyles

The remarkable sight of tens of thousands of educators and public school allies descending on the Capitol lawn for the six days of the #RedForEd walkout clearly scared the Republican leadership in the legislature. Why else would they attempt the underhanded trick of delaying their budget vote by a day in hopes the teachers would leave and, when that didn’t work, holding a marathon 40-hour session in the House of Representatives? The leadership was clearly nervous about having an audience for their budget approval, and for good reason, as the attention has shed light on questionable practices around education that go beyond K-12 funding.

One issue that many people became aware of for the first time last week is the existence of so-called “freedom schools” at ASU and UA which received their own budget line item of $2.5 million. People found themselves wondering for the first time what exactly a freedom school is and why they deserve their own special line of funding. At the same time, higher education institutions many people are familiar with, Pima Community College in Tucson and the 10-college Maricopa Community College District which serves the Phoenix metro area and includes LD18’s own Mesa Community College, received exactly $0 in state funding for the third year in a row. So why designate millions of dollars for obscure, tiny programs within our two largest state universities while spending no money on well-known community institutions that educate thousands of Arizonans every year?

Both decisions, like the decisions to not properly fund public K-12 education and to attempt to divert taxpayer money to private schools through vouchers, are all symptoms of the same disease.

As outlined in a February story in the New York Times, the freedom schools, which go by the unwieldy and obfuscatory names of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (ASU) and Department of Political Economy and Moral Science (UA), are outgrowths of earlier initiatives at each school which were bankrolled by the massive Koch empire in an attempt to inject conservative thought into universities they see as overrun by liberalism. They teach curricula based on a conservative “Great Books” framework that teaches works of literature, political science and philosophy almost entirely written by dead white men and reinforcing a conservative ideology that favors cultural conservatism and free market economics. Think of them as the academic version of Fox News: having pushed an inflated narrative of liberal bias in mainstream institutions, they argue that the only response is unabashed propaganda for the conservative point of view.

And unlike pretty much every other public education entity in Arizona, they are flush with cash. As reported by the Tucson Daily Star, the two freedom schools are sitting on a combined $9.8 million in cash on hand even before receiving this year’s appropriation. And this is after a spending spree over the last year, especially on the part of ASU’s SCETL, which has offered free Spring Break trips to India for students in order to attract majors, purchased rare books including a first edition of The Federalist Papers (timed to capitalize on publicity around ASU Gammage’s hosting of Hamilton), and brought big-name speakers like Cornel West and Steven Pinker to campus to talk about the so-called “crisis of free speech” on college campuses, despite the fact that ASU has not seen the types of free speech clashes that have happened at other more traditionally liberal campuses like UC Berkeley and Middlebury College.

But the greatest irony of these schools receiving and so freely spending taxpayer money is that much of the money is going to undermine the very idea of public, taxpayer-funded education. The Koch brothers have been at war against public education for decades and, as reported by the Center for Media and Democracy in February, Arizona is now “ground zero” in that war. The controversial 2017 Empowerment Scholarship Account school voucher bill, which would divert millions of tax dollars from public to private schools, was copy and pasted by Debbie Lesko from model legislation provided by the Koch-financed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The Kochs are dropping millions of dollars into the this fall’s Prop 305 ballot referendum on the ESAs, at the same time our tax money is going to teach their anti-public school ideology at our two largest public universities. And this year’s appropriation for ASU’s SCETL even includes funding to develop a K-12 curriculum, possibly bringing anti-public school propaganda into public school classrooms in an attempt to combat the #RedForEd movement.

Meanwhile, the state’s two largest community college districts continue to struggle after being abandoned by the legislature. A story last year in Inside Higher Education told a story eerily similar to anyone following the K-12 funding saga: unfilled positions, stagnant salaries, crumbling infrastructure. Local residents are paying more in property taxes and students are paying more in tuition, but it doesn’t come close to filling the gap.

The lack of funding for these important institutions is inexplicable unless you see it as another front in the Kochs’ war on public education. Community colleges are a pillar of the public school idea, offering access to higher education at an affordable cost to people who would otherwise be shut out. Attempting to cripple these institutions makes no sense unless you believe, as the Kochs and their allies in the Arizona legislature do, that these people do not deserve access to higher education.

Local media, including conservative talk radio station KTAR, have taken to branding the recent showdown on the Capitol lawn as “Arizona’s Classroom Crisis.” But this makes it sound like something we didn’t have control over, like a natural disaster. But the state of our public education, at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels, was not an accident. It is the result of a deliberate assault on public education, which the “freedom schools” are looking to extend by perversely making it part of the public education curriculum itself.

David Boyles is an English instructor at Arizona State University.