Anatomy Of A Pedagogical Clustrf*k
By now, most news-watchers are at least aware of a bit of Americana being played out in the streets of Jefferson County Colorado, an affluent collection of bedroom communities adjacent to the Denver metro area and home of the Coors Brewing Company.
Jeffco, as it’s known to locals, is probably one of the least likely spots in the country to be host to large student protests, citizen activism and civil disobedience but America is nothing if not unpredictable. News coverage has focused on students’ complaints that the county school board intends to tinker with the content of their Advanced Placement History courses to de-emphasize critical thinking and debate and better prepare them to be Exceptional Americans if not necessarily competitive college entrance candidates.
After weeks of news coverage, there are miles of references on Google to fill in the “who, what, when, where and why” of what’s going down in Jeffco but most are missing, by a mile, the most timely and relevant object lesson embedded in the Jeffco kerfuffle—the importance of voting, always and whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Students, parents and teachers in Jeffco are up in arms because things threaten to go terribly awry with the quality of their children’s education and future success. It is commendable that they have recognized the threat and mobilized, effectively, against it. On the other hand, it might all have been avoided if the good people of Jeffco understood that elections—even at the most local level—have consequences. Something tells me that they will, going forward.
The back story to the current events is more fascinating, and instructive, than I initially expected. A pivotal role in the current crisis is played by Julie Williams, a married mother of two, who is an office manager for an orthodontic practice and a member, through marriage, of the Neville family, a multi-generational arch-conservative political dynasty in Colorado. Julie Williams’ sister-in-law managed Williams’ campaign for a seat on the Jeffco school board.
On paper, a seat on the Jeffco school board is a non-partisan position (as it should be) but to say that Julie Williams is a far-right ideological zealot is an understatement. And, non-partisan position or not, Julie Williams wears her politics on her sleeve. With the guidance of her sister-in-law, Julie Williams found two other like-minded fellow travelers—Ken Witt and John Newkirk—who branded themselves WNW, picking up the Jeffco Republican Committee endorsement for their non-partisan campaign, along the way.
WNW ran on an educational reform platform of giving Jeffco families more educational choices (conserva-speak for vouchers and charter schools); opposition to a poorly marketed and poorly understood proposed $1 billion tax increase for schools; and increasing transparency, accountability and community involvement. Their overarching goal was to win all three seats to establish a new conservative majority on the five seat board.
Not only did WNW have a plan, they had a tested playbook in the conservative takeover of the neighboring Douglas County (Dougco) school board.
As CBS reports:
Jefferson County is the second well-regarded suburban Denver school district racked by partisan battles. In 2009, a conservative slate took over the Douglas County School Board in a Republican-leaning county southwest of Denver. Critics and teachers unions have been unable to dislodge them in subsequent elections that have drawn support from national conservative figures including Jeb Bush and the Koch brothers’ group em>Americans For Prosperity.
Jeffco, though, is demographically more of a swing voting county. And, apparently, not even all local Republicans were on board with WNW’s agenda. One woman, Shawna Fritzler, who closely followed the school board campaign shared her take with a Denver Post reporter:
“I want to like her,” Fritzler said of Williams. “I sat through I think five of the candidate forums. She doesn’t know much about Jeffco schools. ... She has no clue about education in general.”
Williams, herself, begs to differ:
Williams said she does know Jeffco schools. She said she has served on the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee for more than four years. She said it’s true she hasn’t attended a lot of PTA meetings, but she said she stopped going because of its “liberal agenda.”
On election day, it came down to 34% of Jeffco’s registered voters to install the new conservative majority. It might be interesting to know how many of the parents that are currently taking to the streets to exercise their right to protest the board’s actions took the time to exercise their right to vote.
But actions, as they say, speak louder than words, and the new conservative majority board has managed, in less than a year, to alienate teachers, school administrators, the teachers local union, students, parents, the PTA, educational experts, the American Civil Liberties Union and have been subject to not one but two recall efforts. But, as voters, in Dougco before them, learned it’s a lot easier to vote than to recall elected officials.
Trouble started almost immediately after the new board members were seated. The current protests are merely long-simmering public outrage boiling over.
One of WNW’s first actions was to hire a lawyer to represent the board itself, instead of the school district, at an additional $90,000/year billed to taxpayers. That lawyer also happens to have ties to charter schools.
All of that occurred in secret, not even the minority board members were included in the decision, so the selection of the lawyer and his contract details were presented to the public as a fait accompli, a fairly egregious violation of Colorado’s “Sunshine Laws” intended to encourage public participation in decisions bearing on allocation of taxpayer funds.
Shortly after the general election, Jeffco’s popular and well-regarded Superintendent of Schools, Cindy Stevenson, who had served in that capacity for over a decade, resigned before her term was up, anticipating that the new Board members would most likely fire her before long. Stevenson said that her decision was based on the fact that the new majority declined to take staff recommendations on a variety of issues.
After Stevenson’s resignation, the board began a search for a new superintendent and quickly locked on Dan McMinimee, an assistant superintendent from—guess where?—conservative Dougco. McMinimee was the solitary finalist in the board’s review and, after a contentious public debate, he won the position on a split vote. The next split vote approved by the board’s fiscally responsible conservatives awarded McMinimee a whopping $80,000/year raise over the previous superintendent despite the fact that she had more experience and a PhD as compared to McMinimee’s master’s degree.
The public revolted over the contract price and the board majority compromised by carving up the same number—$280,000 that did not include performance pay or expenses—and, instead, awarded McMinimee $220,000/year, with up to an additional $40,000/year bonus and $20,000/year to reimburse him for personal contributions toward retirement benefits. That contract made Dan McMinimee the highest paid school leader in Colorado, and in most of the nation. The compromise passed on the usual split vote, with minority board member Lesley Dahlkemper remarking: “Nice shell game with taxpayer money.”
During the same meeting, on another split vote, the board voted to reject a tentative agreement with the teachers union. John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said in a statement:
Tonight’s decision marks the first time ever in the history of Jefferson County Public Schools that a Board voted to not ratify a tentative contract agreement with educators after their negotiations team signed off on that agreement.
WNW has also proposed a new performance-based compensation structure for teachers with the school board, itself, rating teachers performance as “highly effective,” “effective,” “partially effective” or “ineffective” and doling out salaries accordingly.
The school board hired a third-party expert to review the proposal but, when that expert reported that the new system “lacks sufficient validity and reliability as a basis for setting salaries,” WNW forged ahead, anyway, to establish what had been described as an “untested, unworkable, and highly subjective compensation scheme.”
That move earned Board President, Ken Witt a vote of “no confidence” from the teachers union, the Jefferson County Education Association.
Finally, last month, events reached a tipping point in Jeffco when board member Julie Williams proposal for a review of the AP US History framework and elementary health education was unveiled. Williams proposed that the board should appoint a review committee—separate from existing textbook and curricula committees—to review the AP History course framework and pronounce it un-American.
Of course, the proposal didn’t say exactly that, in so many words, but the foregone conclusions and intent are pretty clear:
The charge to the committee is to review curricular choices for conformity to JeffCo academic standards, accuracy and omissions, and to inform the board of any objectionable materials.
Objectionable? to whom?
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.
Despite the fact that this Primer for Propagandists is on the record, Ms Williams denies any ideological hidden agenda:
Basically, what I am asking for is for history to be taught complete. So the good, the bad, the ugly, without bias.
Basically? Despite her “aw shucks” denial, Ms Williams is parroting conservative talking points that have been kicking around for some time now. Conservatives have long believed that academe, like the media and the arts, has a liberal bias. The Texas State Board of Education has taken the same stand on the AP History framework, the Republican National Committee has egged them on and, just last week, presidential wannabe, Ben Carson told an audience:
I think most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to go sign up for ISIS ... We have got to stop this silliness crucifying ourselves.
Stopping the silliness isn’t a half-bad idea for Americans right now but whitewashing American history is not likely to get the job done.
In the end, Ms Williams’ proposal was tabled in favor of a less incendiary compromise proposal, including the participation of students, parents and teachers on the review committee. But the idea of evaluating the APUSH for “objectionable content” is still alive and passed, as usual, on a split vote. I’m also confident that the conservative majority will find a way to whack away at the History course and any other subject areas that they might consider subversive in future.
The reason? Conservatives are looking at a rapidly shrinking base and the young are not at all interested in signing on. Except in a few geographical sanctuaries, Young Republicans are nearly extinct. Polls are telling conservatives that young people are far more liberal than in the past—the rapid change in attitudes toward marriage equality, is just one concrete example of the way youth are trending.
Some conservatives blame that trend on traditional “liberal” education, hence the fight against Common Core and courses like AP History and a push to privatize education so as to be able to customize it. Conservatives are suspicious of federal programs like Head Start, public kindergartens and pre-school programs as hotbeds of liberal recruitment and brainwashing and increasingly opt for home schooling and charter or “options” schooling instead of public education. People like Michelle Malkin fire up readers with dark visions of:
. . . Big Government/Big Business machine infiltrating school districts through testing, textbook, and technology trojan horses.
Unfortunately, off-year, low turnout local elections allow inexperienced people like WNW to squeak into office believing they have a mandate—nay, a duty—to impose their world view on the rest of us for our own good and their own comfort level. And there can be no compromise because their ends justify any means at all.
So no one should be surprised when Julie Williams posts school board meeting shout-outs to her Facebook page like this:
Sign up on line- Be ready at 8:00 or your voice might not be heard and we will be drowned out by the progressives!
Go to the Jeffco Schools Website, click on the link for the Board of Education on the left side of the screen and you will see the link.
Remember- All eyes are on Jeffco and what we do will not only make a difference in Jeffco but the state and the nation! We need to continue to Stand Strong!
That was followed by an even more embarrassingly florid, huge font howl, that has since been taken down. Thanks to coloradopols.com it lives on in a screen-cap:
The state? The nation, for pity’s sake? Messianic much? Ironically, as it turns out, the nation is paying lots of attention to the Jeffco school board, these days, because of the train wreck they’ve made of their office.
I have to say, I’m impressed by the Jeffco kids—their sensitivity to authoritarian BS, their self-assuredness, eloquence, organizational skills and their values. Maybe, while they’re at it, they can school their parents a bit on the importance of voting in every election.