The 'Freedom Center's' High School Course Is On Shaky Ground at TUSD

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The Star's Hank Stephenson has a good front page article in the Sunday paper about the controversial high school course created by UA's Koch-funded "Freedom Center." It presents an overview of the course and the districts using it, with all sides getting a chance to have their say. I'm pleased to see the Star getting the story out to a wider audience, most of whom have never heard of the Center or the two year old high school course.

Which makes me wonder. Why didn't the Freedom Center publicize the high school course when it was first taught in 2016? A call to the Star undoubtedly would have earned the Center some positive press about itself and the course it created. So far as I can tell, my column in a recent issue of the Weekly was the first mention of the course in the local press. The mentions I've seen elsewhere are a glowing account on the website of the Templeton Foundation, which gave the Center a $2.9 million grant to create and disseminate the course, and a negative review of the course textbook on another site. Even Tucson Unified's board members knew nothing about the course's existence. I first heard about it a month ago from Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, who is a diligent district watchdog and a friend who I disagree with adamantly on some issues and agree with on others. She and some other people have been looking into the course for awhile.

Why is the Freedom Center so publicity shy? My guess is, it prefers to fly under the radar whenever possible. The Center is all about furthering its libertarian agenda in Arizona's universities and high schools. More public recognition could make it harder to maneuver.

The high school course was the subject of a half hour informational discussion at Tucson Unified's November 14 board meeting. Two main questions were raised. First, why was the course authorized by the district administration without the knowledge of the board? Second, now that the board knows of the course's existence, should it officially authorize the course and allow it to continue being taught in the district, or is the curriculum questionable enough that the district should discontinue the course at the end of the school year? The board plans to make some final decisions at its December 5 meeting. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I want to bring up another issue: the troubling origins of the course.

In my years as a high school teacher and an observer of the national public school scene, I can't remember hearing of a course which was created out of whole cloth by some agency outside the schools. It certainly isn't standard procedure for a university department—or in this case, a university "center"—to receive a multimillion dollar grant for the purpose of developing a brand new high school course, complete with curriculum, a new textbook written in house, and training provided by the Center for the people who will teach the course. Nothing is left to chance here. Every aspect of the course is a product of UA's Freedom Center.

The closest comparison I've seen is when corporations create self serving educational materials, usually for elementary school students. I haven't read about this happening recently, but at one time Colgate put out a collection of children's stories to be used in school, branded with its logo, and included a sample toothpaste tube for every student. M&M’s created a math textbook with counting exercises using M&M’s. In Oregon where I taught, lumber companies gave elementary schools coloring books filled with corporation-friendly images. Teachers in cash-strapped schools often took the materials gratefully, which were little more than corporate advertising to shape young minds and tastebuds. But none of these corporations created entire courses for teachers to follow.

Freedom Center people will insist they aren't directly connected with the Koch Brothers, who donated a million dollars in 2011, a small part of the $16 million the Center has received from more than twenty donors. But we only know the name of one donor couple, Ken and Randy Kendrick (Ken owns the Arizona Diamondbacks), who are charter members of the Koch network. Who are the others? Without knowing them, we don't know what ideological strings are attached to their money. The Center tells us the money earmarked for the course came from a Templeton Foundation grant, not the Kochs or the other donors. That's true. However, the Templeton Foundation shares basic views about economics and "personal freedom" with the Center and the Koch Brothers. The money wouldn't have been provided if the course didn't promote their shared beliefs. It doesn't matter much if the money for the Center and the high school course came from dozens of different pockets if they're all on the same political and ideological page. The Center doesn't need marching orders if everyone, including the Kochs, the Kendricks, the anonymous donors and the Center, agree where it should be marching.

The Koch Brothers are famous for camouflaging their influence. They're masters of the political dark money game. In education, they use their money to create university centers and departments whose scholarly output is simplified and popularized by others so it can be used to influence politicians and the public. The Freedom Center's creation of a high school course with no visible Koch Brothers' fingerprints on it is standard operating procedure.

Tucson Unified and other districts should be wary of selling their education to the highest corporate bidder, either directly or indirectly. They need to look at every aspect of the course very carefully to decide whether it was created in the best interests of the students or the people who paid for it.

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