Tucson’s largest school district has allowed a controversial economics class with a biased textbook and ties to the Koch network to slip through the cracks and be taught at four high schools without being properly vetted or approved.
Now, in the middle of the second year of the yearlong class, the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board is scrambling to decide what to do with students who are currently enrolled and grappling with the consequences of having already graduated students who technically didn’t take an approved, required economics class.
Critics of the class say the way it was quietly inserted into district curriculum highlights the worst aspects of both the Koch network and TUSD — that the former is attempting to fund an ideological revolution through its clandestine infiltration of public institutions, and the latter is too incompetent to notice a contentious, unapproved course in its schools.
“I don’t think it’s ironic that such a controversial class slipped through the system,” TUSD Governing Board member Kristel Foster said at a recent board meeting about the problem.
The course, dubbed Ethics, Economy and Entrepreneurship, is 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 Freedom 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.
Students who take the yearlong class, which is condensed to one semester at the university level, can earn three credits for Philosophy 101 through the University of Arizona at a discounted price. Classes are supposed to cover the same material with the same rigor as the college version.
About 100 TUSD students are enrolled in the course.
Teachers prepared for the class by taking a graduate-level course called The Ethical Entrepreneur under the UA’s department of political economy and moral science, which houses the Freedom Center.
The course is currently taught at Tucson, Rincon, Pueblo and Cholla high schools. Cholla offers it only as an elective, which does not satisfy the requirement for a high school economics credit. The others allow it to fulfill state requirement that high schoolers take an economics class.
At least three other public school districts in Pima County — Amphitheater, Sahuarita and Vail — along with some private and charter schools, offer the course, either as an elective or to meet a core requirement for graduation.
Students are expected to learn concepts including micro- and macroeconomics, business ethics, personal and business finance and the process of innovation.
But TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said other districts that offer the class should beware — the course, as developed through the Freedom Center, has some biases and omissions that may throw it out of alignment with state standards for a required economics credit.
“It would behoove (other districts) to undergo a detailed review, to pull the syllabus and make sure that it aligns with state standards for college and career readiness for issuance of economics credit. When we did that process, we did have to work a little bit to make sure everything was aligned,” he said.
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.
The foundation says the goal of the program is to “help students come to a deeper understanding of the nature of success and the virtues that are required to secure it in our distinctively American context.”
And the foundation has big goals for the course, which it hopes will reach 25 percent of Arizona high school students by 2025.
Supporters argue that while the rollout at TUSD was flawed, the controversy around the classes is misplaced. They say the course itself should be judged on its own merit, not on its loose affiliation to a controversial political figure.
Mario Villarreal-Diaz, formerly of the Freedom Center but now an associate professor of ethics, economy and entrepreneurship at the department of political economy and moral science, argued that people are concerned about the center’s donors but should focus on their output and the course curriculum.
Ultimately, the course teaches economic concepts that are used to explore what it means to be an ethical businessperson in hopes of teaching both economic and moral concepts, he said.
Villarreal-Diaz realizes the course may be done at TUSD due to the controversy, but if the district does get rid of the course as a knee-jerk reaction because it is associated with the controversial Freedom Center, it will just hurt students.
“It’s interesting that the issue is the district approved the course without proper vetting and review, and the outcome now may be that they get rid of it without proper vetting or review,” he said, encouraging skeptics to sit in on a class.
But critics argue students who took the class have been cheated out of a balanced look at economics in the only class many of them will ever take on the topic.
Instead, critics argue, public school students are being exposed to what equates to right-wing, free-market propaganda 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.
David Gibbs, a history professor at UA and a member of Kochs Off Campus — an organization opposed to undue donor influence in academia — said the course is a disturbing example of how the Koch family and other like-minded donors use massive amounts of money to influence the educational system as a means to influence political climate.
“There’s something fundamentally undemocratic about that process. And there’s something disturbing about the way they’re trying to instill their ideological opinion in education, particularly at the K-12 level,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs argued that the course presents a skewed version of economics that ignores concepts that don’t fit in 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.
“I’ve read the textbook, and it’s basically an effort to indoctrinate students and give the impression that the economics profession is dedicated entirely to kind of a pure, free-market paradigm, with a very heavy emphasis on deregulation, low taxes and the like. There’s a skewed representation of economics there, which does not represent the consensus of the economics profession,” Gibbs said, noting that he teaches economics history.
A colleague at the UA history department, Douglas Weiner, told the TUSD Governing Board the textbook used in the course teaches a “kind of fairy-tale economics” that has no basis in history. For example, he said, the text argues that private property and patent laws are the keys to successful companies.
“Those things are true enough, but those textbooks completely ignore that the whole industrial revolution has been built on the foundation of plantation slavery … and all sorts of other more complex economic developments,” he said, noting he teaches economics history, and thinks the textbook is “junk science.”
Whether the course amounts to libertarian propaganda or entrepreneurial inspiration, TUSD has a problem: It was never approved to be taught in the district.
To remedy the problem, the Governing Board is considering retroactively certifying the class for those who took it last year or are currently enrolled, causing minimal disruption to the students and teachers. But the board is going to re-evaluate whether it wants to keep its ties with the class after this year.
DERELICTION OF DUTY
The district and students are in this mess because former district employees failed in their duties, according to Superintendent Trujillo.
In 2015, three teachers wanted to bring the course to schools in the district and started the approval process, Trujillo said. Those teachers did everything right, he said, and received initial approval from two administrators who are no longer at the district.
But another administrator who is also no longer at the district never forwarded the request for approval to former Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who, in turn, never brought it to the Governing Board for approval, Trujillo said.
Approving courses is one of the most important jobs of the board and superintendent, right alongside crafting a budget, Trujillo said, and that the district failed in its duties is “embarrassing.”
When Trujillo asked the Governing Board to review the problem and come up with a solution before the Dec. 5 meeting, board members clearly felt hoodwinked that they weren’t even aware a controversial course was being taught right under their noses, without their approval.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t know this course existed. And I’ve visited all of these campuses,” Governing Board Member Adelita Grijalva said.
“How many unapproved courses are there in TUSD?” asked Board Member Rachael Sedgwick.
And the course itself has some problems. John Kramkowski, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, recently audited the curriculum and found that the core textbook, which was developed by the Freedom Center, did not offer a balanced look at macroeconomics.
“The issue was whether there truly was a balanced deep-dive effort to give the students broad perspective in the three types of markets — traditional, command and market economies — and whether those were all treated fairly,” Kramkowski said. He said while the core text developed by the Freedom Center was too one-sided to achieve that goal, the addition of supplemental material satisfied those requirements.
“If you just looked at the textbook, and if these teachers were just teaching this textbook, then I would absolutely say it does not meet the requirements of a Tucson Unified School District economics class. With what the teachers do to supplement the text, it does meet the requirements of a required economics class,” he said.
IN OTHER DISTRICTS
Ethics, Economics and Entrepreneurship is not TUSD’s first controversial course.
Interestingly, the controversy swirling around the class mirrors the controversy that surrounded TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program, but on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
And while TUSD is once again mired in controversy, this time over the course’s roots and the fact that it was never formally approved, other districts that approved the class through the proper channels say they haven’t seen any problems or controversy surrounding the course.
The Vail Unified School District offers the course purely as an elective, per Superintendent Calvin Baker.
Baker noted that electives are free to explore viewpoints on a subject area and aren’t necessarily expected to provide a totally balanced overview like a required economics course might. And he noted that because the course offers dual enrollment at the UA, it’s like taking a college course, where the standards for bias are lower than in high school.
Baker said he thinks the students, who are all high school seniors, can handle it.
“If it were a dual-enrollment literature class, for example, the standard might be a little different, the material a little more controversial,” he said.
The Amphitheater district also offered the course only as an elective at Ironwood High School, beginning this year, district spokeswoman Amy Sharpe said.
Manuel Valenzuela, superintendent at Sahuarita Unified School District, said that like TUSD, Sahuarita offers the class to fulfill the economics requirement. Unlike TUSD, the district did a full review and approval before it started teaching it, and didn’t see anything wrong with the class.
He noted that the curriculum Sahuarita is using seems balanced — and the 12 or so texts used in the course quote both free-market and socialist figures, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx.
“Being a collegiate course, it does seem to go above and beyond the rigor of a usual high school class,” he said.
HANGING IN THE BALANCE
Stacia Reeves stood in front of a class of 21 seniors at Rincon High on Friday afternoon, using pizza and hamburger restaurants as examples to explain concepts like opportunity costs, economics of scale and comparative advantage as the allegedly propagandistic text lay open on a handful of desks.
Besides Ethics, Economics and Entrepreneurship, Reeves also teaches economics, advanced placement macroeconomics, advanced placement U.S. government and politics. The class covers the same topics as her other economics class, but also includes aspects of morality and entrepreneurship , she said.
The students had no clue that they’d been sitting through a controversial class critics say is designed to brainwash them. And when told about this dilemma, they seemed unconcerned.
Vienne Winston and Kariah Walker, both Rincon seniors, said they took the class to fulfill the economics requirement and aren’t seeking credit through the university, since neither plans to attend the UA.
Neither had ever heard of the Koch brothers or their network of wealthy political donors. When a reporter explained the controversy behind the course, they rejected the criticism.
“I don’t feel like anyone is brainwashing me. (Reeves) asks a lot of questions and she asks us to reflect a lot. I don’t think someone would do that if they were trying to make you think a certain way,” Winston said.
“Inside of the class, it’s not very controversial. But for people who don’t understand what’s going on inside of the class, maybe they’re basing (their opinions) on assumptions,” Walker said.
The students were more concerned that the fallout may affect their ability to graduate and urged the Governing Board to leave the course in place, at least until they’re finished.
“I’m not going to be able to graduate if they pull this class (midyear), and that’s really going to impact my life. But if they want to scale back (in the future) based on the opinion of everybody, I think that’s fair,” Winston added.