School board proposal ‘white-washes’ history, draws protests from parents, students

Large-scale student protests and “teacher sick-out” school closures have recently thrust the school board of Jefferson County, Colorado, into the spotlight.

I am a parent of three students in the district, and I have watched with growing alarm the conduct of the school board. I have asked to anonymously publish this piece due to the fact that several people who are publicly speaking out against the conservative board majority are being subjected to harassment and threats against their families.

The community reaction is the result of several controversial actions taken by the three conservative members of the Jefferson County School Board: Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams (commonly referred to together as WNW).

Monday, two more Jefferson County high schools were closed. There will be an organized protest before Thursday’s board meeting, and an even larger demonstration is scheduled for Friday.

We need to more closely examine the issues that have prompted such a strong and sustained local reaction from students, teachers and parents.

The Election

It is first worth noting that the three conservative members of the five-person board were all elected as part of a slate in 2013, an off-peak election year in which only 34 percent of Jefferson County voters actually voted. WNW’s primary platform position during the campaign was their opposition to standardized testing and to storing student information on the cloud. However, they were well-funded by outside groups. And, once elected, it quickly became clear that WNW’s agenda was much broader and more radical than the electorate had imagined.

For example, one of the new majority’s first actions was to hire a lawyer to represent the board itself (as opposed to the school district), which was unusual. Even more unusual was the fact that interviews of potential attorneys and the terms of the engagement were not disclosed to either the public or even the minority members of the school board.  Many believe WNW’s actions violated Colorado’s so-called “Sunshine Laws” intended to ensure openness in decisions by public officials in allocating taxpayer funds.

WNW Going Rogue

The conservative majority have also repeatedly stated during school board meetings that they do not believe they have any obligation to the district’s kindergarten or public preschool programs. They proposed a new compensation structure for teachers that would rely heavily on whether the school board deemed a teacher’s performance “highly effective,” “effective,” “partially effective” or “ineffective.” A third-party fact finder, hired by the school board, concluded that the proposed system “lacks sufficient validity and reliability as a basis for setting salaries.” Yet WNW ignored their own expert and voted to move forward with their untested, unworkable, and highly subjective compensation scheme.  The board’s controversial actions resulted in the district’s teachers issuing a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in Board President Ken Witt.

The Proposal

But the most extreme proposal to come from the board was from Julie Williams. Ms. Williams’ proposal was for the creation of a committee, to be made up of people appointed by the conservative majority, to review instructional materials for “objectionable materials.”

Among the more alarming language contained in the proposal is the mandate that schools’ instructional materials “should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority ….  Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law [and] should present positive aspects of the United State and its heritage.”

It is this language, which is little more than a nationalist “whitewashing” of U.S. history, that has moved thousands of students, parents and teachers to protest. And while the primary focus so far has been on the effect that the committee would have on the instructional standards developed by the College Board for their nationally accredited AP US History program that provides students with college credit for taking the class in high school, the district’s proposal actually applies to all curriculum taught in Jefferson County schools.