The Jeffco rebels

October 29, 2014

David Long reports on the eruption of protest in Jefferson County, Colo., in response to a conservative school board's attempt to censor the U.S. history curriculum.

A REBELLION has broken out among Colorado students and teachers against the efforts of an ultra-conservative school board to censor the U.S. history curriculum.

A newly elected majority of the Jefferson County school board voted in September to empower an oversight committee to override the decisions of history teachers and flag "any objectionable materials." The original proposal, later revised, explicitly warned against presenting acts of civil disobedience in a positive light and recommended the promotion of conservative values and free-market fundamentalism.

In a colossal backfire, the school board's action has prompted a wave of the very civil disobedience it feared would be discussed in class. Teachers in Jefferson Country (which locals call "Jeffco") responded with sickouts that shut down four schools in two weeks. Students supported teachers by walking out of class and holding public demonstrations.

The protests have put a national spotlight on the school board's attempt to rapidly turn Jeffco's public school system into a bastion of Tea Party extremism.

Students in Jefferson County fight for their right to learn real history
Students in Jefferson County fight for their right to learn real history (Jeffco Stand Up)

NEIGHBORING DENVER to the west, Jefferson County has Colorado's largest school district and serves more than 85,000 students. Its problems began when three conservatives won a majority on the five-person school board last November in elections with only 31 percent turnout of eligible voters. The victorious candidates, Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk, ran on a platform promising more "choice" in schools, higher accountability standards for teachers and--ironically, as it would turn out--greater transparency.

The newly elected trio quickly embarked on a plan to upend public education despite their glaring lack of educational experience. Witt, the new chairman of the board, has a business background in information technology. Williams, the new vice president, is a former office manager at an orthodontics clinic. She's also related by marriage to the Neville family, which established its presence in Colorado politics by lobbying for gun rights and opposing civil unions.

One month into office, the new school board voted to hire Brad Miller, an attorney with close connections to the charter school movement, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $90,000--despite the fact that the board already had a district-appointed lawyer. Later, evidence surfaced that the board majority made the decision to hire Miller before the question even came up for public discussion, in violation of the state's Sunshine Law, which states that "the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret."

Things got worse in February when schools superintendent Cindy Stevenson resigned, citing the new board majority's refusal to take staff recommendations and work with her.

The board replaced her with former Douglas County Assistant Superintendent Dan McMinimee, who was given a salary of $280,000, far above former superintendent Stevenson's $205,500 salary--in contrast to the board majority's pretensions to fiscal responsibility. In Douglas County, McMinimee had gained notoriety for his opposition to teachers' unions--shutting teachers out of collective bargaining negotiations, for example--as well as his support for charter schools.

McMinimee arrived in Jeffco just in time for the beginning of contract negotiations with the Jefferson County Education Association in March.

The school board majority--with McMinimee's approval--swiftly implemented a performance-based pay system, a step that had been specifically advised against by a fact-finding mission conducted earlier that year by the American Arbitrator's Association due to gross flaws in the new merit-based teacher evaluation process.

Negotiations continued into May, when the union emerged with a signed tentative agreement to institute a "pay for performance" system based on accurate data. (Opponents of the performance-based pay system claim that its categorical designations from "ineffective" and "highly effective" are more linked to test scores than teaching ability.) Witt then rejected the tentative agreement due to its recommendation to compensate even "partially effective" teachers.

The school board majority stoked more outrage in April when it tabled a proposal to earmark $600,000--out of a $648 million budget--for free full-day kindergarten at five Jeffco schools. The measure would have eased the burden on low-income families, many of whom can't afford full-day kindergarten, which costs between $90 and $218 per month.

A few weeks later, the board granted a whopping $5.5 million to charter schools and earmarked $855,000 to gifted and talented programs, thus paving the way for an even wider learning gap between gifted and at-risk students.

BUT IT wasn't until Williams issued her proposal at a September 18 school board meeting to create a "curriculum review committee" to overlook teaching materials that Jeffco's new school board pushed its community into resistance.

Williams proposed that the new committees be given authority to "regularly review texts and curriculum according to priorities that it establishes"--starting with the curriculums for AP U.S. History [APUSH] and elementary health. The second paragraph of her proposal spelled out what those priorities would be:

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Williams's proposal met a storm of opposition, causing fellow conservative board member John Newkirk to submit a revised version, which merely brushed up the language of the first paragraph and struck the second one out altogether.

But the modified proposal didn't satisfy its opponents' doubts because it still gave the school board the upper hand in appointing committee members to the review panel. Moreover, the language made it clear that U.S. history would probably be just the first of many subjects to undergo "review."

Some Jeffco teachers had already been throwing around the idea of a mass call-in for months in response to the breakdown of collective bargaining. Williams' proposal to override U.S. history teachers was the match that lit the fuse.

AFTER THE school board meeting, teachers organized through the night and responded the next day by calling in sick. On September 19, about a third of the teachers at Standley Lake and Conifer high schools called in sick, causing the two schools to close for the day.

Around a hundred students rallied outside the closed Standley Lake High School, carrying signs with slogans like "Education Without Limitation" and "Don't Make History a Mystery!"

Over the next two weeks, students organized demonstrations and walkouts at several Jeffco schools, mainly through Facebook pages like Jeffco Stand Up. Some antics included dressing up like historical "rebels" at school. Demonstrations were held at Standley Lake, Conifer, Pomona, Lakewood, Ashland, Alameda, Bear Creek, Evergreen, Arvada West, Wheat Ridge, Ralston Valley, Golden, Jefferson and others. By the end of the month, at least 1,500 students had engaged in walkouts.

The student actions further inspired the teachers. On September 29, another teacher sickout closed Golden and Jefferson High Schools for the day--and this time, about 75 percent of teachers called in sick. Teachers' union president John Ford spoke cautiously but supportively about the action:

This wasn't organized by [the Jefferson County Education Association]. But we certainly understand teacher frustration right now, and I think our whole community is experiencing the same kind of frustration with the secrecy, waste and disrespect from our school board majority.

As the protests garnered national attention, much of it supportive, teachers and students were not spared threats and slander. McMinimee threatened teachers engaging in sickouts with docked pay or "future discipline."

In a slew of condescending remarks made during a local news interview, Ken Witt likened student protesters to "pawns" controlled by union agitators. Students responded by making T-shirts with the word "pawn" crossed out on the front. Fox News weighed in, of course, calling the students punks and rebels.

To top it all off, Julie Williams responded to her critics in writing. Here are a couple gems from that response:

APUSH rejects the history that has been taught in the country for generations. It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American History for generations...parents who have reviewed APUSH have been very unhappy with what their children will be taught and have lost trust in the "experts."

Last, when it comes to history I believe all children graduating from an American school should know 3 things: American Exceptionalism, an understanding of US History, and know the Constitution.

BACKED INTO a corner by the wave of protests, the school board majority has exposed its ultra-conservative agenda. The truth that everyone has suspected all along has finally slipped out: Williams is a Tea Party fanatic.

When a local reporter asked if Williams had reviewed the APUSH framework, she replied, "I have briefly looked at parts of it, but I am not an expert. And that's why I would like to have this committee."

But Williams already indicated in her statement that she has no respect for "experts." Instead, would like a committee composed of other "non-experts" like herself who nonetheless think they have the authority to decide what historical content is appropriate and what is not, as well as how it should be taught.

On October 11, at a rally organized by Jeffco Students For Change next to Columbine High School, about 250 people gathered to hear students, community members, teachers, and bands voice their opposition to the actions of the board majority.

Many spoke of a recall of Julie Williams, and although students explicitly stated they didn't want to spearhead a recall effort--they knew they would be prevented from doing so by age requirements anyway--many were helping to circulate petitions to recall Julie Williams and Ken Witt.

Most of the students proudly sported T-shirts and buttons with slogans like "Jeffco Rebels" and "Fox News called me a Punk." They also wore red squares pinned to their shirts to represent the international students alliance, as well as purple squares to represent their county.

At present, the fate of Jeffco's students and teachers is unclear. But one thing is certain: we can expect to see more hostile school board takeovers around the country by right-wing groups like the one in Jefferson County. They've succeeded in making many of their ideas like "pay for performance," "school choice," and charter schools appeal not only to conservatives but to liberals.

If there is hope, it is in struggle, organized resistance and community solidarity. The students and teachers of Jeffco are learning a lot about that. While Jeffco teachers have been well aware of their exploitation by the board majority for a long time, now that the students also know they are being targeted by massive propaganda campaigns it will be interesting to see what comes of all this community solidarity they have built up so far.

As Ashlyn Maher, a senior at Chatfield High School and a student organizer with the Jeffco Students for Change group, put it: "We are not a political agenda, and we are not a profit margin. We are students that need to be educated."

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