School boards, historically, have been, for the most part, a necessary democratic entity charged with representing the public’s interest related to the governance of public education and rubber-stamping a majority of the decisions made by professional educators. It seems the importance of the local school board has increased in certain political circles. As a result, the overall make-up of school boards has changed in a number of school districts throughout Colorado.
One local school board to experience a change in its make-up after the November 2013 elections was the Jefferson County School Board (JeffCo). The Denver Post reported on September 25, 2014 that a majority of the JeffCo Board was elected after running as a slate of conservative, reform-minded candidates. On September 18, 2014 the JeffCo School Board tabled a vote on the formation of a proposed curriculum committee. The proposed committee would be responsible for reviewing curricular choices for conformity to JeffCo academic standards, accuracy, and omissions. Also, the 9-person committee, whose members would be appointed by the school board, would ensure curricular information was presented accurately and objectively. Specifically, the proposal favors instructional materials that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essential and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” In addition, instructional materials could not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
Those concerned by the formation of the curriculum committee claim that its sole purpose is to bar the revised US History advanced placement (AP) curriculum from being implemented in JeffCo schools. As possible evidence that partisan politics are exerting a greater influence in public education, the Republican Nation Committee issued a statement last month calling for delays in the implementation of the new US History AP curriculum because it was viewed as revisionist history that stressed negative aspects of US history.
At the board meeting when a vote on the curriculum committee was table, the JeffCo School Board was accused of censorship and shifting the focus of instruction from teaching students how to think to teaching them what to think. In response to the concerns articulated at the meeting last week, one of the conservative JeffCo Board members has suggested adjusting the wording related to the curriculum committee that would make its charge less directive.
What I have found most interesting about this situation is that students from at least 13 of the school district’s 19 high schools have walked out of classes each day starting on September 19, 2014 in protest against the proposed curriculum committee. And, these student activists are considering an organized walkout during the October 1 student count school day. There has been a lot of political posturing from both sides of issue concerning the student walkouts and rallies, but it appears the student actions are producing the desired results. The JeffCo School Board is experiencing pressure nationally and within the state and it remains to be seen if the board will stay the course.
Taking a step back from the current events unfolding in JeffCo, I am fascinated by the impact student walkouts can have on school boards. As stated above, a number of school districts in Colorado have recently, or in the last five years, experienced a shift in the make-up of their school board members due to the election of individuals with specific political agendas. Some of these political agendas have disrupted the governance process within school districts and, unfortunately, taken resources away from educating children. What recourse do people have when they elect an individual to a school board who is failing to appropriately represent them? In Colorado the answer to that question is, “no much.”
School boards may censure one of its members if deemed necessary, but a censure amounts to little more than a statement being posted in each school within the school district. There is also the option of a recall, but the laws around recalling an elected official place the burden on those seeking the recall. For example, in Colorado a recall election must be preceded by a petition signed by at least 40% of the people who voted in the election when the individual in question was elected. In addition, if the recall fails, then the costs accrued by the incumbent for the recall election are assumed by the school district. In short, there is little oversight or accountability for elected school board members.
Enter student walkouts. The actions of the students in JeffCo appear to be an effective means to bring attention to the antics of school board members that may not be in the best interest of students. These walkouts seem to be shedding a national spotlight on the JeffCo School Board and that spotlight may be proving a bit blinding for some. I anticipate the JeffCo School Board to back down from the curriculum committee based on the public outcry, led by the students. So, in the end, kudos to the JeffCo School Board for providing its high school students with an authentic opportunity to practice civil disobedience and for teaching others how to effectively challenge partisan school board actions.