Littwin: Blame Julie Williams for Colorado’s education ‘reform’ fail
November 9, 2015
It's probably not altogether fair to put the stunning defeat of so-called education "reformers" around Colorado on Julie Williams, but let's do it anyway.
She's the one who has called for taking a more positive view of U.S. history. And I'm positive the historically overwhelming numbers voting to recall Williams and her buddies from the Jefferson County School Board would not have been possible without her.
And I'm pretty sure the momentum that swept across Jefferson County also was felt in Douglas County and maybe even in Colorado Springs. And I'd be tempted to add the Thompson School District to the list if I actually knew where the Thompson School District was.
The reason that agenda-driven zealots often take over school boards is that most people aren't paying attention. Few voters know the issues or the candidates, and if you get a stealth attack funded by outside money — which is what happened in Jeffco — you can end up with an ultra-conservative school board majority ready to do the crazy in the name of "reform."
Much of what the Jeffco school board did was controversial. It made some teachers angry. It made some parents angry. There were fights over money and contracts and transparency and lawyers and the teachers' union and the Koch brothers and all the expected sticking points.
But without Williams' famously uninformed attack on the AP U.S. History curriculum, it's unlikely enough people would have noticed to make any difference.
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Teachers walked out, then students walked out. The local TV cameras showed up, then the national TV cameras showed up. Williams' proposal turned the school board, and Jeffco, into a laughingstock, which is never a good look in electoral politics.
It was bad enough that Williams thought the AP history course should emphasize patriotism instead of, you know, history, but it was when she said that she wanted a course that would create "good citizens, not rebels" that the eyes really began to roll. Even Williams, after all, must have learned at some point that rebellion was sort of at the heart of the entire American enterprise.
But what did it for me was when Williams did an interview on News 9 — I think it was on Day 4 of the walkouts — and was asked what exactly she objected to in the AP curriculum. She said — and you could look it up — that she wasn't familiar enough with the curriculum to say. Oops?
No wonder #JeffcoSchoolBoard History went viral.
I'm not a fan of recalls. This recall probably never would have happened had it not been for the gun-legislation recalls, which suddenly made the idea seem plausible. Elections should have consequences, and recalls, in my view anyway, shouldn't be do-overs. But it's too late for that now, and, if you have to have recalls, I'd say the Jeffco school board is as good a place as any.
You don't have to ask how Williams and gang lost. The vote to recall the Jeffco 3 was nearly 2 to 1 in each case. When you have a 2-to-1 vote, it's never one thing. It's all things.
The high-cost, insult-driven campaign was just as nasty as you'd expect. And if most people expect their politics to be ugly, they may not expect school board politics to play out the same way.
Still, it's not clear how much this vote was against charter school expansion or vouchers or merit pay. But it certainly was a vote against overreach. And we know how that goes. It's probably no coincidence that the Koch brothers money lost, in just the way that during the previous recalls that Bloomberg money lost. It's no surprise either that my friend Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute, was on the losing side. He's been on the losing side so often he should be playing for the Rockies.
In any case, Jefferson County is Colorado's bellwether, the kind of place where political journalists and academics come to study how a one-time red or blue state has gone purple. It was Jefferson County, as much as any place, that rejected the Republicans' statewide take on the culture wars, helping to give Democrats a 10-year, top-of-the-ticket winning streak until it was broken last year by Cory Gardner.
This time, the culture wars were being played out in the classroom. That was never going to work in Jeffco, even in a low-turnout, off-year election. The surprise is that it also was being rejected in bright-red Douglas County, where three anti-reform reformers were elected to the school board. Something happened, but what?
The question being asked now is what these elections might mean for 2016. Don't listen to anyone who pretends to know. There's no destiny here, manifest or otherwise. But this much is clear: Republicans had a great night in elections across the country — with Colorado being a notable exception. And having noted that, I hope the history books give Williams at least a footnote.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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