Controversial Economics Class Dropped From Tucson High Schools

By Brenda Iasevoli — December 15, 2017 4 min read
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A controversial economics course has been cut from the high school curriculum in Tucson public schools after board members discovered teachers were using a textbook that hadn’t been properly vetted.

The one-year course course, now in its second year, will still count toward graduation for students who are currently enrolled in it and for those who have already completed it. These students can also still earn dual credit at the University of Arizona.

Somehow the course slid under the board’s radar and into four Tucson high schools. The course’s primary textbook, Ethics, Economy, and Entrepreneurship, has raised eyebrows for its supposed connection to the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, or Freedom Center, which was established in 2008 by one of the text’s authors, Dave Schmidtz, and which was funded to the tune of $1.8 million by conservative billionaire Charles Koch.

Schmidtz, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona, said the book is not connected with the Freedom Center. In an email he said that the text and the course are a product of many units on campus, including the departments of philosophy, marketing, and PPEL (philosophy, politics, economics, and law), and the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship, which guides students in launching new business ventures.

“I have raised money from the Charles Koch Foundation but not for the course,” Schmidtz wrote. (The Charles Koch Foundation has aimed to develop high school programs that would “impart Koch’s radical free-market ideology to teenagers.” Mark Walsh describes their efforts in this Education Week blog.)

It was the John Templeton Foundation that contributed a $2.9 million grant for the course. The John Templeton Foundation was created in 1987 by the billionaire whose name it bears, and gives more than $70 million annually, mostly to scholars and universities, for research into the relation between religion and science.

The aim of the University of Arizona grant, according to the Templeton Foundation’s website, is to “foster research and produce curricular resources that will empower teachers (at the high school and college levels) to help students come to a deeper understanding of the nature of success and the virtues that are required to secure it in our distinctly American context.” In the end, the goal is to make the course reach 25,000 Tucson high school students by 2025.

“Students need to know that government has an important role to play, but the role is specific,” reads a quote by Schmidtz on the website. “In a free society, metaphorically and literally, choosing destinations for citizens is the sole responsibility of individual citizens themselves. More-expansive roles for government tend to invite tyranny that treats citizens as pawns to be moved around by rulers rather than by hopes and dreams of their own.”

University of Arizona professor of history and government David Gibbs isn’t convinced the course has no connection to the Freedom Center, which he described as operating with little transparency. Gibbs said the center has about 24 donors, most of whom are unnamed.

As for the textbook that Schmidtz co-authored, Gibbs called it a skewed interpretation of economics. “This is a far right-wing version of economics that would be more appropriately classified as indoctrination than teaching,” he told Education Week. "[The authors] leave out or distort systematically topics that do not fit their ideology. To present this to college students would be deeply troubling but, even worse, to high school students who I think lack the context to properly interpret this indoctrination.”

Gibbs said the authors bypass discussion of the problems of inherited wealth concentration, currently a major topic in mainstream economics, as well as historical instances of successful government regulation. He also said the authors offer the career of entrepreneur as a wonderful and exciting opportunity, but “make no mention of the fact that most entrepreneurs lose their shirts.”

Mario Villarreal-Diaz, formerly of the Freedom Center but now an associate economics professor at the University of Arizona, defended the course at a recent school board meeting, arguing that it serves as a source of empowerment for students and teaches them what it means to be an ethical business person. “If a perspective is assumed in the course, we believe that it is one of the most noble ones: that you can pursue your dreams without hurting others and that you can do for others to make others better off is the ethical way to live your life to advance your own well-being and to build a peaceful and prosperous society,” he said.

But he also admitted the course’s entry into schools was flawed, saying that he looked forward to “following due process” so the course could become a legitimate academic offering.

Board member Rachael Sedgwick signaled that she was open to having that discussion. She pointed out that the controversy was more about the textbook than the class itself.

“Now that we have a lot more information about the course and what goes on in the classroom, I’m much more willing to have a more robust conversation about it,” she said.

Board member Adelita Grijalva, however, said she still wanted to know how the books got into so many classrooms and why there was no record of the purchases.

“My concern is if any other textbooks got into our classrooms, who purchased those, and how did they get there? Because that’s a major problem,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.