Posted on 07 October 2014.
Keeping Politics Out of Education
Historian Howard Zinn, late author of A People’s History of the United States,
would be rolling over in his grave if he knew what was happening in Colorado.
The school board of Jefferson County, Colorado, approved a controversial measure last week to review and whitewash the curriculum of U.S. History courses. The proposal sparked weeks of student walk-outs and garnered national attention.
The student-led protests began when conservative school board member, Julie Williams, proposed the creation of a committee to change the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum to emphasize patriotism, positive aspects of U.S. history, and the benefits of the free market system while downplaying or removing lessons about civil disobedience, social strife, and defiance of authority.
AP students chose to respond with civil disobedience of their own by organizing the first of several walk-outs on September 19th. Jefferson County teachers showed their opposition by calling in sick en masse, causing several school closures over multiple days.
Gretchen Carlson of FOX News called the young students a bunch of “punks.” The president of Jefferson County’s Board of Education, Ken Witt, called them “pawns“ in a scheme perpetrated by the teachers’ union.
Discontent between members of the community and the school board has been rising since a conservative majority took power last November.
A national, right-wing political group, Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, celebrated the conservative victory in the Jefferson County school-board elections, reported Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. Dustin Zvonek, the Colorado state director for the group, said the election marked “an exciting and hopeful moment for the county and school district” and told the three-member majority “to strike while the iron is hot,” and that “Board members can and should begin exploring and debating such options with little fear of alienating the public at large.”
Well, the public was largely alienated. High-school students organized and were just recently joined by local middle-school students, who also walked out.
Local college and university professors formed a solidarity group. The national SAT testing organization commended the student’s actions. Last Wednesday, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Civil Liberties Union and eight other national groups sent a letter to the school board condemning the proposed curriculum review.
“It would be nearly impossible to teach U.S. history without reference to ‘civil disorder,’ which is appropriately discussed in connection with the American Revolution, the labor movement, civil rights and gay rights activism, U.S. entry into World War I, voting rights protests, public demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, opposition to abortion, government surveillance, and countless other significant events in U.S. history. Telling schools that they cannot use materials that ‘encourage or condone civil disorder’ in addressing these and other historical events is
tantamount to telling them to abandon the teaching of history.”
High school senior Bethany Keupp says the proposal to potentially alter AP U.S. history content along ideological lines was the final straw for students, teachers and parents. “We are very frustrated that this is being reviewed because of political issues. We would really expect our elected officials to act in the best interests of the students, not in the interests of your political affiliation,” Keupp said.
Kerrie Dallman, president of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, says school board member Julie Williams seems to be pushing an agenda instead of working from knowledge of the new AP U.S. History curriculum.
“When you have a school board member like Julie Williams who puts out a press release making all kinds of claims about how AP U.S. History is not covering basic historical figures like Martin Luther King and George Washington,” Dallman says, “and then somebody goes and looks at all ten of the previously approved texts for AP U.S. History in Jeffco public schools, and finds every single one of the historical figures Julie Williams said is not covered is actually in the text books, she clearly hasn’t done her homework. She is acting on somebody else’s be-
half. That to me is disturbing and further evidence of the
reason why politics has to get out of Jeffco public schools.”
Texas, Tennessee, Washington and Illinois have seen similar attempts by school boards to change curriculum to reflect a more conservative ideology, but no other place in the nation has experienced protests like Jefferson County, Colorado.
Last week’s school board meeting – the first since Williams made her announcement – drew hundreds of student protesters and their supporters. Despite critics who have labeled the protests unpatriotic, former Jeffco public school student Devi Yanirao says love for her country is precisely what motivated her to support current Jeffco students.
“We want to be able to show both sides of American history, both the negative aspects and the positive aspects, and we shouldn’t just focus on the positive ones,” she said. “We’ve made good decisions and bad decisions as a country and both sides need to be shown to future students so that they can understand our history and where we are coming from and why we are here today– and the way we are today.”
At the start of the tense school board meeting last week, Julie Williams said her “proposal was aimed to increase community engagement and transparency so people do know what is being taught to their children and as a board we can review the curriculum as we are responsible to do.”
The large crowd, which overflowed into the parking lot, seemed unconvinced.
Some of the most controversial language in William’s proposal was removed, but not before opponents delivered a petition with more than 40,000 signatures asking that her proposal be killed altogether.
Despite the petition and public outcry, the conservative majority voted 3-2 to move forward with plans to create a committee to review AP U.S. History content. As part of a compromise, students, parents, teachers and other approved citizens will be able to join the committee.
But protesters say they plan to keep up their civil disobedience campaign until they are confident that partisan politics and ideological whitewashing are kept out of their public schools.
Writing for the Huffington Post, Sacramento State University History Professor Joseph A. Palermo said this in his column:
“When high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado walked out in protest against the right-wingers on the school board who purged their history curriculum of content they deemed “unpatriotic,” they probably learned more in a week of direct action than they could learn in a year of going to class.
Not content to write a letter of complaint, or sign a petition, or tap “Like” on a Facebook page – these young people hit the streets in the grand tradition of civil disobedience in America; the same tradition the Jefferson County school board seeks to airbrush out…
Right-wingers always overreach and try to erase or bend history to fit their pre-conceived ideological notions. We owe the students of Jefferson County our deep gratitude and appreciation for standing up to power and reminding us about the importance of critical history being taught in our public schools.
By engaging in civil disobedience they’ve taken it a step further. Their actions speak louder than any words.”
~Via Google News, CBS News, FSRN, Denver Post, Colorado
Public Radio, Amy Goodman, and Dr. Joseph A. Palermo