Colorado’s AP History Controversy
by Michael Cain
This isn’t normally my kind of policy thing, but since I’m “on the ground” so to speak, and the LA Times got the story wrong, I thought I’d file a report from the front. Full disclosure: I’ve lived here for 26 years and my kids both did their full K-12 stint in this school district before going on to college at Colorado state schools.
The Jefferson County School District, with more than 84,000 students, is the largest school district in the state of Colorado. Jefferson County is located immediately west of Denver proper, extending from inner-ring suburbs to rural mountains. In the last school district election, three self-described conservative candidates won, forming a majority of the five-member board. They ran on a platform that was largely no more school tax increases  and moving money from administration to the classrooms. Under the Colorado constitution, local school board control is nearly absolute. This local control has affected Colorado in the past: one of the reasons cited for the state losing some Race to the Top grant competitions was lack of centralized control.
The board has been involved in a number of controversies since the election. Fairly soon, the then-superintendent of schools took early retirement  saying that she couldn’t work with the new board. The board hired a new superintendent with less experience than the outgoing superintendent at a significantly higher salary. The board short-circuited the ongoing negotiations between the district administration and the teachers union on teacher evaluations and pay-for-performance, imposing their own plan. About a month ago, one of the new members proposed that the board form a new commission to study curriculum content, starting with the revised-for-this-year Advanced Placement® US History class. Official AP classes are taught to a framework specified by the College Board, the non-profit company that controls the AP system. The proposal included language that said the class should deviate from the College Board framework and emphasize (my interpretation here, not a quote) American exceptionalism, the sainthood of the Founding Fathers, and proper respect for authority. All of the board’s actions, already taken or proposed, are clearly within the scope of the power granted to them by the Colorado constitution.
In response to the proposed review of AP US History, there have been teacher sick-outs and student protests . Name-calling has been rampant: lots of national news stories have quoted the school board members who called the protesting students “pawns of the teachers union.” One unfortunate picture has been used extensively. It shows two attractive young women with signs; one of the signs has misspelled the word “censor.” Remarks along the lines of “AP students? They can’t even spell. What a joke!” have been common. At the last minute, the board added discussion of the proposal to the agenda for the public meeting held this past Thursday (Oct 2).
The meeting was a raucous affair, with a crowd overflowing to space outside the building. There were three hours of public testimony offered, largely but not entirely against the proposal. Students from one high school offered the board boxes containing petitions opposing the proposal with 40,000 signatures. The head of the district PTA asked “Do 13,000 angry parents catch your attention?” (no word on where that number came from). Board discussion following the testimony was… heated (a reporter in attendance tweeted “Bloodsport!” at one point). Ultimately, the board took several actions.
- The language specifying changes to the AP class framework was removed. The board member who had proposed the language said that she was misunderstood.
- The board accepted a proposal from the superintendent to use the existing course review mechanism instead of creating a special committee. My understanding is that the existing review process is a “changes for next time” thing, so I believe that AP US History will be taught to the College Board’s framework this year.
- The existing review group will be expanded to include students and community members.
My take is that the board’s conservative majority largely caved (the LA Times seems to think differently). As I mentioned before, they had the authority to go ahead with their original proposal. There’s plenty of case law on the subject of school board powers in Colorado; the only real recourse opponents have is a recall. From time to time during the meeting, some people in the audience did shout “Recall!” . To be honest, I have no idea why the three members behind the proposal thought they could get away with it without a fight; for the 26 years I’ve lived here, “mess with my kids’ opportunity to get into a better college” has been a third-rail policy issue. And parents of kids that take AP classes tend to be the type that are paying attention to what’s happening at school.
All of that said, the College Board does seem to put local school boards in a bit of a bind. The College Board has an effective monopoly on the means by which high-school students can get college credits or placement that are recognized by a large number of different schools. You (potentially) get those credits by scoring well enough on the AP US History test. All students who pay the fee can take the test, regardless of what classes they’ve taken. The College Board’s AP US History class, then, is a dual-purpose thing: on the one hand, it’s a US history class; on the other, it’s a prep class for a specific test.
So the local board has to make a choice. They can offer the AP US History class as specified by the College Board. They can offer a “tough” US history class with a locally-determined framework. That could still be a prep class at least in the sense of having students practice the test style, especially the short- and long-form essays. They could offer only a “normal” US history class. What they can’t do legally — and the College Board has already told them so — is tinker with the framework and still call it Advanced Placement®. What they shouldn’t do — at least in my opinion — is tinker with the framework and call it advanced placement, sans the upper case and registered trademark, implying that it’s a fully-equivalent prep class. And what they really, really shouldn’t do is change the class from the Advanced Placement® that was sold to students and parents to something with a different frameworkafter the school year has started.
 She had already been planning on early retirement, but took it sooner than she had previously said she would.
 Since this is in Colorado, all state and local tax rate increases must be approved by a vote of the people. Jefferson County voters have pretty routinely approved property tax rate increases for the school district.
 For the most part, students have protested on their own time and have continued to attend scheduled classes.
 Since this is in Colorado, recall elections are pretty easy relative to other states. 13,000 angry parents’ signatures are probably enough to force an election.