Fortunately, in December, a small group of academics and concerned citizens convinced the Tucson Unified School Board to not include the textbook and its related course in their high school curriculum. This specific vote seems like such a minor thing: one textbook, one elective high school course, one school district. But elements of the year-long effort by this small group, called Kochs Off Campus, has a number of national implications.
In 2008, the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom was founded at the University of Arizona with $1 million in funding from billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, with additional funds totaling $16 million arriving over time from the Koch’s network of donors. The Center is part of a network of more than 200 such academic organizations across the US whose purpose is to advance the Koch brothers’ philosophy of minimal taxation, an absence of social programs for the poor, and unregulated capitalism.
According to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, one of the Center’s founding donors, The John Templeton Foundation, gave the organization a grant for more than $2.9 million for the development of its Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Freedom program to teach libertarian ideology to high school students. The program’s goal was to train 90 high school teachers to reach 4,000 students in its first three years of testing in Tucson high school districts, and eventually to 25 percent of Arizona’s high school student population by 2025.
David Schmidtz, who directs the Center, his wife Cathleen Johnson, and marketing expert Robert Lusch wrote and self-published the EE&E textbook, developed its accompanying course and solicited its placement. While Tucson Unified did not adopt the textbook, the city’s Amphitheatre, Vail and Rincon school districts already authorized it before Kochs Off Campus became aware of its existence. Researching the textbook led us to the Freedom Center, the Koch plan to give libertarian philosophy academic credentials and Koch network’s push against taxpayer-funded education.
In 2009, the Koch network successfully convinced Arizona legislators to drastically reduce public school funding. This forced cash-strapped Arizona universities to accept similar donor-funded Freedom Centers, donor-directed courses and donor-selected professors. Now, to meet the state’s requirement for economics courses, cash-strapped schools are offered free teacher training and free textbooks to accept the biased textbook and course.
The irony is the Kochs’ campaign against public schools is based in the belief “taxation is theft.” The textbook argues businessmen (aka scientists) – such as Thomas Edison – should not have to pay taxes because their products are benefit enough to society. This idea ignores how taxpayers benefit businesses by providing education to employees, building roads, funding research, providing police and courts to protect property rights, and so on.
When the textbook is challenged, the authors, the University of Arizona and the Freedom Center often claim the “academic freedom” to say whatever they wish. There is a big difference between the EE&E course being taught by Professor Schmidtz at the University of Arizona, and it being used in high schools.
At the university level. misinformation and disinformation could be challenged when students take additional courses in ethics, economics, business, or political science. In high schools, however, the course may be the only one offered which covers this subject, which means deficiencies in the textbook become much more consequential.
The course leaves students with no understanding of important economic arguments that could help them become informed citizens, voters and employees. Further, their teachers were trained to the textbook, hence most likely have little knowledge or ability to mitigate what is missing, misleading, and just plain wrong.
To assure academic integrity in K-12 education, school boards need policies and procedures that make sure only textbooks are properly vetted prior to use in classrooms. Parents and school boards should not trust a textbook simply because it originated from a respected university, because K-12 curricula do not include checks and balances on academic integrity.
To counter billionaire donor influence, we need hard-working volunteers willing to do relentless detailed research, speak up and produce communications to expose the demagoguery of wealthy libertarians and their assaults on critical thinking and degradation of democracy.
If you want to assure our students are not taught that “greed is good” and winner-take-all selfishness is moral, then join a school board or a group fighting dark money to demand academic freedom with integrity.
(editor’s note: this essay has been lightly edited for style and to clarify terminology)