September 29, 2014 12:00 PM – By Ross Izard
If you’ve been watching any news out of Jefferson County recently, you know that the district is dealing with some controversial issues.
First, two high schools in the district closed after huge numbers of teachers called in sick. Last week, thousands of Jeffco students hit the streets to protest a discussion about a discussion about the new AP US History (APUSH) curriculum framework. Students have also threatened to walk out on October 1, the count date that in large part determines a district’s per pupil funding. And just this morning, another round of teacher sick outs forced two more Jeffco high schools to close.
Despite their carefully worded statements to the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that somewhere behind all of this stands the teachers union in Jefferson County. As Ben DeGrow points out, it’s very unlikely that the current chaos stems from a spontaneous groundswell of patriotic dissidence.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what is actually going on in Jefferson County. The protests are ostensibly based on fears about historical censorship. Those fears stem from a proposal for a curriculum review committee put forward by board member Julie Williams at a recent board meeting. The committee would be tasked with reviewing a variety of curricula, with the APUSH framework being first on the list. The creation of such a committee would hardly be a radical move in light of existing board policy on curriculum review.
In fairness, Williams’ proposal contained some politically inflammatory language. Perhaps that’s why a near-immediate proposed amendment by John Newkirk (another of the “evil” majority members) struck that language from the document. In any case, the proposal was tabled and never voted on. That’s right, this committee isn’t even a thing yet.
Yet many concerns about the APUSH framework are credible. As education scholar Rick Hess outlines, the framework itself may encourage a slanted view of our nation’s history. That slant may not be quite as egregious as it has been made out to be by some, but it is noticeable enough that it warrants further discussion.
But please, don’t take my word for it. I challenge board members, teachers, parents, and students in Jefferson County to read the framework for themselves. You may agree or disagree with specific points of contention, but it is not difficult to see how more general concerns about the framework arose.
When we have legitimate concerns about something as crucial as our history, we talk about them as a community. That, my friends, is precisely the opposite of censorship. On the other hand, shutting down a discussion while some members of the community have deep concerns about the issue sounds decidedly authoritarian. The philosophical inconsistency of taking an anti-discussion stance in arguments for free speech and the vox populi is painful.
The APUSH framework controversy should be an opportunity for us to fairly and honestly discuss the history education we want our kids to have, not a divisive pendulum between two opposing points of view. We only have one history. And, as with many other things, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. If a discussion is the first step toward a more reasonable middle ground, why in the world would we want to shut it down?
The competing explanation for the past couple weeks’ unrest is Jeffco’s new strategic compensation structure. Yet the new plan gives 99% of teachers a raise in a district where step increases have been frozen for years. There are still some wrinkles to be ironed out, but it’s hard to imagine that such a system would be a major sticking point in a district where 98% of teachers are rated effective or highly effective (and are therefore eligible for larger raises). The fact is that more teachers will make more money under the new pay structure than they would under the union’s alternative pay plan.
Simply put, neither the misguided censorship argument nor the strategic compensation argument fully explains the level of unrest we’re seeing in Jeffco. So, what is really going on? In a word: Politics.
I think union leaders are mad. They’re mad because they no longer control the board. They’re mad because their longstanding status quo arrangement with the district is being challenged. And they’re especially mad because the tides are turning against them in Jeffco, in Colorado, and across the nation. What we are seeing in Jeffco is not about historical revision, pay systems, or fair treatment for teachers. It is—and has always been—about political power.
With little regard for the truth, the Jefferson County Education Association has made some headway by test marketing an anti-Board message and repeating the same ragged three-part mantra (“Disrespect! Secrecy! Waste!”). They counted on a lack of careful consideration to spread their message, and they have now used that message to engineer mass outrage over a misconstrued non-incident and a systemic change that will benefit the overwhelming majority of Jeffco teachers.
While I respect and admire the fact that young Americans want to stand up for their rights, no rights are being threatened in Jeffco. Instead, thousands of kids and teachers have been misled into fighting a vicious political proxy war between the union and the school board. All the while, the union’s leadership stands aside, happily watching the misinformation genie they released run amok at the expense of Jeffco kids’ education and safety.
It’s tremendously irresponsible, and it has gone too far. It’s time to do the right thing. It’s time to end it.
Ross Izard is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute.