The Tucson Unified School District is looking to revive a controversial economics class with an admittedly biased textbook and ties to the Koch network that slipped into its schools unvetted, then was nixed when it was discovered in the middle of the school year.
Philosophy 101: Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship caused an uproar in TUSD after auditors discovered that it had been taught without ever having gone through the proper channels to be approved and taught in the district.
The class was offered as a dual-credit college course developed in partnership with the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, better known as the Freedom Center. The center receives funding from Charles Koch and other Libertarian-minded donors, some of them unnamed, as well as from a special appropriation from the Legislature.
The class was taught last year at four TUSD high schools, three of which offered it as a core credit satisfying the requirement that high school students take at least one economics class.
Now the class is back up for approval, only as an elective, though questions still linger about whether the textbook has undergone the proper review process.
The class is controversial because of its high-profile backers, the conservative lens through which it teaches economics and the way it was slipped into TUSD curriculum without ever having been approved by the district’s governing board.
Critics argued that the course presents a skewed version of economics that ignores concepts that don’t fit neatly with free-market ideals, and that the main text used to teach it, which was developed by academics affiliated with the Freedom Center, is pure propaganda.
They argued public school students are being exposed to what equates to right-wing, free-market spin sponsored by an organization of wealthy business owners whose ultimate goal is to indoctrinate children and groom a new generation of free-market ideologues who will grow up to loosen regulations on business.
Supporters of the class note that funding for the course development didn’t come from the Koch brothers, the powerful billionaires behind Koch Industries who have spent fortunes to push free-market politicians and policies. Instead, it was funded through a $2.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which is often called a “spiritually inclined” nonprofit that funds interdisciplinary research in areas including religion, science and free-market economics.
They say the course should be judged on its own merits, not on its loose affiliation to controversial political figures.
After discovering the class in the middle of last school year, the district’s governing board in December voted to retroactively approve the class and allow it to continue through the remainder of the school year to ensure the students enrolled didn’t miss out on required credits toward graduation.
But the board agreed that in lieu of a separate vote to formally approve the class going forward, the class would be automatically canceled at the end of the past school year.
On Tuesday, July 10, the TUSD governing board will reconsider the class, debating whether to offer it instead as an elective at Tucson, Rincon and University high schools.
But questions remain about whether the course textbook, “Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship,” has undergone the proper review process.
The book has been perhaps the most controversial aspect of the course. District officials last year audited the curriculum and found that the textbook, which was developed by the Freedom Center, did not offer a balanced look at macroeconomics, though with the supplementary texts, the course did meet the requirements of an economics class.
The TUSD governing board was scheduled to approve that book as a supplementary text but that item was pulled from the agenda at the last minute Monday.
TUSD Governing Board President Michael Hicks said that was because the book hadn’t been displayed in the district office for 60 days to allow the public to review it, as required by board policy.
“I told them, ‘No, that’s not going to fly,’” he said.
But Dan Erickson, director of Advanced Learning Experiences in TUSD, said that policy seems contradictory, and it is unclear if a 60-day review is necessary.
The district policy states both that supplementary texts “will be placed on display in the District office for a period of at least sixty (60) days prior to the meeting at which the Board will consider their adoption” and that “supplemental materials may also be approved by Assistant Superintendents and brought to the Governing Board for final approval.”
Erickson said he’s going to clarify whether the text needs a 60-day review, and if so, the course likely wouldn’t be offered this year, since books wouldn’t be available until September.
He said TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo in May asked his department to bring the course back before the governing board for a final decision, and that the course as a whole underwent the proper vetting processes this time around, though it all happened on an expedited schedule.
But even if the governing board approves the course and the book for the next school year at its meeting Tuesday, Erickson said it’s unclear if schools will be able to offer it with such little notice.
“No schools have this course available right now. So they’d have to put it into their master calendar, they’d have to re-adjust teaching schedules, they’d have to recruit students to fill the course , they’d have to order textbooks. I mean, there’s a lot to be done before school opens August 2nd,” he said.
Hicks said the fact that the course is being proposed as an elective, rather than a core class, makes it much easier to swallow, and undercuts what he thought was a valid concern with the class as a core credit: that it’s the only view of economics those students will receive.
And while critics, like members of Koch’s Off Campus, a nonpartisan group of Tucson residents, University of Arizona faculty and students concerned about the undue influence of right-wing money on public education, argue that having the course as an elective is a step in the right direction, they say the district should ax the class once and for all.
Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, a member of the group and parent of a TUSD student, said there’s something sinister about the way ideological institutions like the Templeton Foundation or other Koch-aligned organizations are making big donations to the UA Freedom Center to create ideological curriculum and “buy access” to impressionable high school students.
“If they want to call it ‘Extreme Libertarianism 101,’ maybe I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it. But then at least I’d know what it is and I’d know better than to send my kid to it,” she said.
Putnam-Hidalgo and others have been slamming TUSD governing board members with emails urging them to reject the course outright.
Hicks, who said he expects to cast the deciding vote on the issue, said the outrage over the course’s connections to the Koch network is overblown, and that if and when the district shows the class and book went through the proper approval process, he would seriously consider voting to allow the class back into high schools that want it.
“I don’t want to be the one who is going to hold back a class, especially an elective class, from someone who wants to take this class. … Once everything goes through the right process, it’s going to be difficult for me to say no just because it’s (tied to) the Koch brothers. I’m not going to be the censor,” he said.