The protests over a Colorado school district’s proposal to promote patriotism and de-emphasize civil disobedience in American history classes have found their way into the state’s marquee midterm election races, injecting a volatile issue two weeks before early voting ballots land in mailboxes across the state.
As hundreds of students in Jefferson County walk out of class, Democrats running for governor and Senate are decrying the proposed changes, while some Republicans question the role of the teachers union, which is in its own battle over merit pay.
Statewide contests in Colorado are won and lost in the vast Denver suburb, and partisans on each side hope the heightening passions rebound to help their team in November. Colorado is the site of a top-tier gubernatorial contest and a neck-and-neck Senate race that could help determine which party controls that chamber.
“This is an issue that seems closer to people’s lives than what they are seeing in the political ads on TV, and it could absolutely impact races up and down the ballot,” said Craig Hughes, a Democratic consultant. Democrats, facing a tough election with President Obama’s low approval ratings, are particularly hopeful the controversy shakes up state politics.
The demonstrations broke out more than a week ago. A conservative bloc of three new members was elected to the school board last year, and they instantly became the majority, pushing out the district’s veteran superintendent and clashing with its teachers union and parent-teacher association.
At its Sept. 19 meeting, the board proposed creating a committee to review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
The ensuing walkouts brought criticism from some candidates, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, a former congressman who represented Jefferson County. He said the board is within its rights to consider the adjustments.
“They have every right to discuss curriculum,” Beauprez said. “What this is really about is the continuing tiff between the teachers union and the elected majority.”
His opponent, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, criticized the proposed curriculum changes.
“Parents do not want a narrow curriculum or limited educational experience for their children,” said Hickenlooper, father of a 12-year-old. “The question is: Do you want your kids to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Boston Tea Party? Personally, my answer is, Yes.”
The students’ passion brought the praise of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who called them inspiring, and said he hoped the school board would listen.
Rep. Cory Gardner, the Republican challenging Udall, wouldn’t weigh in, saying it was up to Jefferson County and that the federal government shouldn’t get involved.
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 Americans For Prosperity.