History Curriculum Scrutiny Draws Protests in Colorado

Published December 8, 2014

Tempers flared in Jefferson County, Colorado after a school board member proposed increased scrutiny of the district’s Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum. Opposition to Board First Vice President Julie Williams’ resolution prompted national educational figures such as Diane Ravitch to disparage it, teachers throughout the district to call in sick from work, and hundreds of students to skip school for organized protests.

Williams introduced her resolution at a school board meeting on Sept. 18. The second paragraph of her resolution read, in part, “[I]nstructional 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.”

Board Secretary John Newkirk offered a revised resolution omitting the entire second paragraph. Another version of the resolution lacking Williams’ original wording passed at a contentious three-hour meeting on Oct. 2. Three recently elected conservative members outvoted the two liberal members to appoint a committee of teachers, students, and two education experts selected by each of the school board members. The committee will review the AP History curriculum and offer suggestions to the school board.

Education Locally Controlled

There are 19 high schools in Jefferson County, which is adjacent to Denver County. Dan McMinimee, Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools, said Colorado public-school education is locally controlled, as opposed to education in Texas, for example, which is state-run.

According to the Sept. 6 board minutes, Williams introduced a motion, seconded by Newkirk with revisions, to appoint a committee “to study Common Core, PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] assessments and Advanced Placement United States History.” She withdrew the motion at the request of School Board President Kevin Witt, who asked her to introduce a resolution at a special board meeting on Sept. 18.

An audio file of the meeting posted on the website reveals immediate objections by two board members despite the deletion of what one termed “chilling” language in the resolution.

“Obviously the resolution wasn’t perfect,” McMinimee said, adding, “Several people found the language used objectionable. The Board took no action that evening and tabled the topic.”

Student Protests and Teacher Sick-Days

Students subsequently walked out of classes to engage in protests against Williams’ original resolution, which was never adopted. Their activities became a cause célèbre in such periodicals as The New York Times and the United Kingdom’s The Guardian. Both publications cheered the students for skipping classes. Neither publication, however, noted the revised language of the adopted resolution.

Similarly, the prominent school choice opponent Diane Ravitch posted an incendiary statement on her blog on Oct, 5, writing, “By a vote of 3-2, the school board of Jefferson County, Colorado, passed its controversial proposal to adopt an American history curriculum that removes references to dissent and social disorder and anything else that diminishes a sense of patriotism. This idea was cooked up by a radical rightwing majority that took control of the board at the last election.”

Teachers also challenged the resolution before and after the compromise. The Guardian reported two district high schools, Golden and Jefferson, respectively experienced 73 percent and 81 percent of teachers taking sick days the Monday after the 3-2 school board vote 

Inclusive and Transparent

“I’m thrilled with the compromise,” said Williams. “My primary goal was to give taxpayers a chance to weigh in.”

McMinimee added, “Our district has several curriculum-related policies in place, and we’re following them,” he said. “Based on the final action taken last Thursday, we will establish a board committee rather than a district committee, to ensure more transparency. Using District policy as a framework, each of our five board members will appoint two members to the committee, which will also include students, teachers, and curriculum experts selected by the District.”

The Denver ABC network affiliate credits McMinimee with the resolution that was eventually accepted. Despite the compromise, students and some of their parents are organizing a campaign to recall the three conservatives, Williams, Newkirk, and Witt.

“We’re listening, we’re making adjustments, and we’re moving forward in an inclusive and transparent fashion,” McMinimee said, predicting the AP curriculum issue will be resolved by spring 2015.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute.

Image by prettyinprint.

On the Internet

“Resolution: ‘Board Committee for Curriculum Review,'” Julie Williams, Sept. 18, 2014: http://heartland.org/policy-documents/jefferson-county-colorado-board-education-resolution-board-committee-curriculum-rev

Jefferson County Board of Education Meeting Minutes and Audio: http://www.jeffcopublicschools.org/board/minutes.html

“In Colorado, a Student Counterprotest to an Anti-Protest Curriculum,” Jack Healy, The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/us/in-colorado-a-student-counterprotest-to-an-anti-protest-curriculum.html?_r=2

“After Fierce Debate, Jeffco Board Adopts Curriculum Review Panels, Includes Teachers and Students,” Molly Hendrickson, Alan Gathright, Phil Tenser, ABC 7 News – Denver, Oct. 2, 2014: http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/jeffco-school-board-debates-proposal-to-review-ap-us-history-apush-curriculum
“School Board Defies Protest of Hundreds To Pass Review of US History Curriculum,” Nicky Woolf, The Guardian, Oct. 3, 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/oct/03/colorado-school-board-protest-review-history-curriculum-passes
“Colorado Teachers Stage Mass Sick-Out To Protest US History Curriculum Changes,” Jessica Glenza, The Guardian, Sept. 30, 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/29/colorado-teachers-us-history-sickout-protest-contracts-jefferson