culture war

Jeffco parents fear censorship as board considers new curriculum panel, AP history

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi leads a discussion on the earliest days of American colonies. Rossi has taught Advanced Placement U.S. history for more than a decade.

A proposed panel that would oversee Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, curriculum, and assessments is provoking anxiety among some parents who fear the panel could be a de facto tool for censorship.

That’s because the committee’s first task might be to ensure that revisions of an advanced American history class are patriotic and teach students to respect authority.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to decide whether to establish the panel tonight at its evening work session.

The nine-member panel, as outlined by conservative board member Julie Williams, would be appointed by the board and report directly to them on an ongoing basis. The committee would most likely be comprised of lay citizens — not necessarily education and curriculum specialists.

The impetus for the panel is a number of new standards and curriculum questions that have lately proved to be political flash points, including the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and their related assessments.

But, if formed, the new committee is expected to first take up the revised Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which has become the target of conservative criticism across the country.

The new version of the course spends more time on early and recent American history and places greater focus on the role of women and minorities. Many conservative critics have complained that the changes are revisionist and present a negative view of the country. The Colorado State Board of Education has debated the topic but has taken no action. Meanwhile, the Texas State Board of Education just took a preliminary step to curtail the course.

As currently outlined, the proposed panel in Jeffco will be charged with ensuring the course is aligned to Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, and is factual and taught without bias. But the panel is also supposed to make sure materials do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Those directions, which Williams said she replicated from another source, has sparked the most conversation among critics.

“Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history?” asked Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson, rhetorically. “Hiroshima didn’t necessarily look great.”

Williams, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said she recognizes dark times in the nation’s history need to be taught, but she believes the coursework goes further than just pointing out blight spots on the nation’s record.

“There are things we may not be proud of as Americans,” she said. “But we shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place. When [the course questions] our American values and leaves out so many of our founding fathers, that’s concerning to me.”

Taught with fidelity, students should be able to identify and discuss broad themes that have helped create the nation’s identity, including happenings before the British colonies were formed, said Fred Anderson, a University of Colorado professor and one of the architects of the course redesign.

“American history doesn’t start in 1775,” Anderson said. “That’s actually the midpoint. Everything that happens in the national period goes back as equally far. That’s one of the great things [students] should come away with. We’re an amazing nation. It’s an outgrowth of specific historical circumstances. For example, there was a native population that inhabited the land before any European knew it was here.”

Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi said that despite the revised curriculum guide, her classes’ content remains the same.

“It’s America’s story,” she said. “But the new approach engages students in a more thoughtful way that does not make the test the only focus of the curriculum.”

Rossi would not directly comment on the proposed committee, but she did say she was disappointed by the approach.

“I’m saddened to think that anyone doesn’t believe Jeffco U.S. history teachers aren’t already engaging students in healthy discussions,” she said. “Do they not think we’re not talking about patriotism? They don’t even know us. They don’t know what we’re doing.”

Williams admitted she doesn’t know. And that’s the point of the committee.

“All I can say is that this has been brought to me by so many of my stakeholders,” she said. “There are certainly enough questions about this. All I’m asking is for a committee to review it. What does it hurt to look at it?”

Critics of the proposal note that Jeffco Public Schools already has two different curriculum committees that might be able to answer those questions.

One is a regular committee made up of administrators who review and make recommendations on new curriculum before its purchased. The second is an ad-hoc committee pulled together when a parent challenges a specific text.

Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students first and general supporter of the board’s majority, said parents should be more involved in curriculum selection in the first place.

“JCSF is very supportive of the move to increase transparency around curriculum and text book review,” she wrote in an email. “I absolutely agree the community should be involved in selections, but I am not certain of the manner and make up of the review committee. For years, the Jeffco board has talked about community involvement in the curriculum selection and text book review, but what that meant in reality was the books were placed in some libraries for a few weeks and no one really knew about it or even knew who was on any relevant committees.”

While the board has engaged in some conversation, including a lengthy study session with standards experts in August, it has failed to act, mostly because board chairman Ken Witt has asked for more information and time.

Because feelings on standards, curriculum, testing and local control can blur ideological lines, it’s not clear how the board will act — if at all. But some observers believe Witt likely be the swing vote on the matter. Fellow conservative board member John Newkirk is likely to follow William’s request.

Lights - camera - action

Relive the Jefferson County school board recall in 12 minutes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

What can a school board election tell us about American democracy?

Well, if that school board race happens to be in Jefferson County, involve the nation’s largest teachers union and one of the country’s most influential conservative nonprofit groups … quite a bit, actually.

At least that’s the premise of a new documentary short film, “Million-Dollar School Board” by independent filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler. 

The film chronicles the high-profile school board race — which included debates about how history should be taught and how teachers should get paid — that ended with three conservative members being ousted by a coalition of teachers, parents and community members. More than $1 million was poured into the campaign from all sides, hence the film’s title.

The Jeffco film is part of a nine-part series of short documentaries, “Postcards from The Great Divide,” released in a digital partnership between PBS’ Election 2016 initiative and The Washington Post, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Latino Public Broadcasting, with a PBS broadcast on the World Channel.

The goal is to answer this question:

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

You can view the roughly 12-minute film in its entirety here:

Then reread a sampling of our coverage:

 

full disclosure

Teachers unions gave huge sums of seed money to Jeffco recall, new records show

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Organizers of a school board recall effort in Jefferson County, from left, Michael Blanton, Wendy McCord, and Tina Gurdikian, spoke at the campaign kick off event in July.

National and local teachers unions provided more than $265,000 to a nonprofit group that served as a catalyst to recall three conservative school board members in Jefferson County.

That is according to campaign disclosures filed Thursday in response to a judge’s order that the group, Jeffco United, disclose its donors.

The organization, a social welfare nonprofit with tax-exempt status, was established in May and received its first donation — $25,000 — from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. In total, the CEA gave $113,500 to the group, records show.

The national union was even more generous. The National Education Association gave $150,000 to Jeffco United in late August.

Complete Colorado — an arm of the free-market think tank The Independence Institute, supported the recalled school board members — first reported the NEA contribution.

The disclosures shed significant new light on who bankrolled the high-profile recall, which opponents of the conservative board majority repeatedly described as a broad community-based effort. But the full picture of the financial forces on both sides of the campaign remains incomplete, because of lax state and federal reporting requirements.

Who gave to Jeffco United? |
• National Education Association, $150,000
• Colorado Education Association, $113,500
• Jefferson County Education Association, $20,000
• All other individuals, $3,115

“This is all we asked for,” said Dede Laugesen, director of Colorado Government Watch, the El Paso County-based organization that filed the complaint against Jeffco United. “It is only too bad voters did not have this information before the election.”

Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United, said it would be a mistake to say the recall was “union-led.”

“This was a parent-led and parent-organized recall,” Hansen said. “But parents can’t raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of out-of-state money that keeps coming into Colorado. This is the way the game is set up. We’re playing by the rules that we’re given.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffco United eventually launched two sister political committees to finance the recall and the election of a five-candidate slate. Most of that money — more than $200,000 — was raised locally.

Those committees raised and publically disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a large donation from Jeffco United early in the campaign.

An administrative court judge last week ruled that Jeffco United violated the state’s campaign finance laws. The judge found there was enough evidence to suggest that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to spearhead the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.

Typically, social welfare nonprofits — such as One Colorado, Progress Now and Americans For Prosperity — are allowed to raise money without disclosing their donors and then donate a portion to political committees, which are required to disclose donors to the secretary of state.

It’s common practice for advocacy organizations to operate multiple fundraising and spending apparatuses including 527s, independent expenditure committees and issue committees.

However, under Colorado law if an organization’s “major purpose” is to act only on a singular political issue, it must file as a political committee with the secretary of state and not as a nonprofit.

Judge Robert N. Spencer, in his decision, found Support Jeffco Kids — another group named in the original complaint — had an established track record of work on a variety of issues, therefore it did not violate the “major purpose” law.

Spencer’s decision only applies to Jeffco United.

Other nonprofits, including Colorado Independent Action, which acted similarly to Jeffco United, came to the aid of the recall targets. Independent Action, like Complete Colorado, is an arm of the Independence Institute, which does not disclose its donors.

Ousted board chairman Witt said the institute has a long track record for supporting politicians who champion for expanding school choice.

“I don’t think there was any surprise in those organizations being strong advocates for what we’re doing,” Witt said. He added, “I’m delighted that the truth has finally come out.”

The transparency watchdog organization Colorado Ethics Watch earlier this month called on lawmakers to revisit the state’s campaign finance laws that govern school board races.