Questions about how American history should be taught have incited a rare battle between a school board and students — along with teachers and activists — in a Colorado school district. The dispute will even be live streamed tonight during a meeting of the Jefferson County School Board.
The battle started when school board member Julie Williams proposed that a committee be established to review course material for the district's high school Advanced Placement US History class.Williams proposed the committee ensure the course material promotes "citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights," and that it does not "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law."
Protests began on September 19, as students demonstrated at high schools throughout one of Colorado's largest school districts — some walking out of classes during school hours while others organized with school officials to demonstrate during off-periods.
"It's gotten bad," Arvada High School junior Griffin Guttormsson told the New York Times on September 23, when hundreds of students from the district's 17 high schools staged protests. "The school board is insane. You can't erase our history. It's not patriotic. It's stupid."
Six days later, teachers staged what they called "sick-ins," forcing two high schools to call off classes on Monday.
Despite the demonstrations and nationwide attention, the school board didn't appear to be backing off prior to Thursday's meeting. According to the Associated Press, a new proposal removes mention of patriotism and minimizes the social disorder requirement. According to Colorado's 9 News, the meeting is expected to be full, with teachers unions setting up a projector in the parking lot for attendees who can't fit in the room.
The proposal is an affront to the First Amendment, National Coalition Against Censorship Executive Director Joan Bertin told VICE News. The coalition joined groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in writing a letter to the school board opposing the "deeply problematic" curriculum review proposal. She explained that board members are state actors with constitutional obligations — something they often don't realize.
"The main problem is schools are not institutions to indoctrinate students in a particular view," she said. "Compulsory patriotism doesn't wash in this country."
The Jefferson County School Board did not respond to VICE News' request for comment. School District spokeswoman Melissa Reeves told VICE News they were deferring questions on the matter to the school board, but stressed that the district has been working over the past few weeks to ensure students are safe "while honoring their right to speech."
Jefferson County's headline-grabbing debate is a symptom of increasingly politicized and active school boards, according to National Education Policy Center Director Kevin Welner. Welner told VICE News that the situation draws similarities to textbook debates in Texas and Common Core curriculum debates throughout the country, with specific differences in regard to the local power that district school boards in Colorado. In Jefferson County, Welner said a new school board had been trying to change a variety of things.
"It used to be a conservative school district wouldn't look much different than a progressive school district," he said, pointing out the growing trend of politically active school boards. "It's important because the transformation of school district politics and school board politics seems to becoming more widespread."
Welner pointed out what he called an encouraging result of the fight in Jefferson County — the student protests that have resulted. School systems across the US are no stranger to educational activists and debates, but Welner said this kind of student action is something almost unseen since the 1960s and 1970s.
"What we're seeing is the power of students to transform debate," he said. "What they're engaged in is a hugely educational opportunity. [They're] learning important things about being citizens in a democracy."
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