State universities slated to get $5M for little-known ‘freedom schools’

Hank Stephenson//April 18, 2016

State universities slated to get $5M for little-known ‘freedom schools’

Hank Stephenson//April 18, 2016


The state university system is still reeling from last year’s $99 million cut, and higher education advocates for the three state universities are pleading with lawmakers to restore some of their funding now that the state’s budget outlook is improving.

Universities are asking for an additional $24 million in funding in fiscal year 2017, bringing the total funding down to $75 million less than universities had two years ago.

According to draft budget spreadsheets circulating around the Capitol as the budget continues to be negotiated, that doesn’t appear likely. One of the few reprieves the universities are getting is a $5 million addition specifically earmarked for “economic freedom schools.”

However, many lawmakers have no idea what an “economic freedom school” or center is.

And the universities are just as stumped about why the centers are receiving state funding. The Arizona Board of Regents said it never asked for the $5 million for the centers, and its priority for the year is mitigating the cuts made last year.

Republican Rep. Bob Thorpe of Flagstaff, who chairs the House Government and Higher Education Committee, was among the lawmakers who drew a blank when asked what the schools are and who requested funding.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Don Shooter also couldn’t explain what the centers are. He said nobody from the universities approached him about the funding, and he was unsure why the centers are slated to receive $5 million in funding in a draft of this year’s budget.

“Many mysterious things happen in the budget process. Many things come and many things go. I have no explanation, other than there’s a lot of weird stuff that shows up (in draft budgets) and many things disappear,” Shooter said.

There are three economic freedom centers that would receive the funding, according the Legislature’s budget arm, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

University of Arizona has a Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, a research center that falls under the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Arizona State University has a Center for the Study of Economic Liberty and a Center for Political Thought and Leadership. All three are research centers that do not produce degrees.

And all three centers are mostly funded by private conservative donations, including donations from the controversial Charles Koch Charitable Foundation. Charles and David Koch own Koch Industries, one of the largest multinational corporations in the world, and are known for their heavily financial backing of conservative candidates and causes.

Only UofA’s center receives direct, earmarked money from the state – an annual $500,000 appropriation.

ASU came under fire in 2014 when it accepted a $3.5 million donation from the Koch Foundation Center to create the Study of Economic Liberty. The school’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership accepted an early donation of more than $1 million from the Koch Foundation, according to press releases from the university.

UofA’s center was also started with some seed money from the Koch Foundation, according to a 2011 article in the Tucson Weekly. Among its other major funders are Randy and Ken Kendrick, who are major donors to conservative causes, and principal owners of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Last year, Gov. Doug Ducey proposed a hefty $75 million cut to the university system. But during budget negotiations, Republican lawmakers upped that cut to $99 million. This year, higher education advocates are rallying to reduce that cut back down to the $75 million Ducey had originally proposed.

Julie Newberg, a spokeswoman for the Board of Regents, noted that the universities are more concerned about restoring funding to the university system as a whole and didn’t ask for any funding for the centers specifically.

“Reversing the trend line on state higher education funding is critical for our state’s long-term economic viability,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers have derided the centers as Koch-backed Libertarian-leaning think tank operations that shouldn’t receive state funding.

But Republican Sen. John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills said the centers are designed to promote free-market ideas in the bastion of liberalism that is the university system.

“It’s an attempt to have one voice out of 30,000 on campus advocating that side of the issue,” Kavanagh said, noting he didn’t ask for the $5 million in funding for the centers.

Democratic Sen. Steve Farley of Tucson countered that if the idea is to advocate free market policies, the centers should practice what they preach and not take any state money.

“Why do we need to spend taxpayer money on an institute to study free markets? Shouldn’t they go to the free market for that?” Farley asked.