AP History Recall Campaign
by Michael Cain
It’s mid-summer in Colorado, which means that it’s citizen initiative season. Time to get the titles for ballot issues approved and start collecting signatures. In addition to statutes and constitutional amendments, in Colorado there are initiated recall elections. I live in Jefferson County, which has a large county-wide school district where three of the members of the district board are likely to be up for recall come November.
Some back story. The three board members who won their nonpartisan elections in 2013 pretty much ran as a group, pooling resources and sending out shared advertising. Their platform was, broadly, fiscal responsibility, greater transparency, and expanded opportunities, phrased in about that much detail. Also on the ballot that year was Amendment 66, which would have increased state income taxes on wealthy tax payers to support public education. All three opposed that amendment, which failed badly in the state-wide election (Jefferson County’s vote on the amendment closely mirrored the state-wide results). The three newly-elected board members formed a conservative majority of the five-member board.
While there were controversies, none of them exceeded what might normally be expected for the board of a large school district  that covers areas from inner-ring suburbs to rural mountain valleys. Then, in 2014, the majority decided to take on Advanced Placement® US History. The student protests that followed made the national news. The board members eventually retreated a long way from their initial position; far enough that the district will almost certainly meet the College Board’s standards in the foreseeable future. The damage had been done, though. A bunch of parents of college-bound students were incensed.
The kick-off event for the campaign to recall the three board members was held at the county fairgrounds earlier this month and drew nearly 2,000 people. According to reports filed with the Secretary of State, the group organizing the campaign has already raised more than $43,000. They claim to have more than 2,000 volunteer signature collectors (each recall petition requires signatures from approximately 15,000 voters registered in the county). The organization predicts that they will have enough signatures some weeks before the early-October cut-off date.
Of the four things that can be done by direct initiative in Colorado – statutes, referendums, amendments, and recalls – recalls are the only one that make me uncomfortable. The others, pretty much described in the Arizona v. Arizona case in the Supreme Court this year as making the citizens a parallel legislative body are fine by me. Recalls, OTOH, are a second-chance to pass judgment not on policy but on policy makers. They often happen in elections where there are no other legislative races on the ballot, as will be the case if the Jeffco petitions are successful, and small-turnout off-year elections can be captured by a motivated minority of voters .
There’s no other real alternative in the case of a Colorado school board, though. The state constitution makes the boards near absolute powers within their districts, determining what will be taught and how . Changing the constitution to reduce school boards’ authority, or to make their decisions subject to referendum and initiative, would require multiple changes to the constitution and would probably run afoul of the current single-subject limit for amendments. District school boards don’t pass statutes or laws that could be overridden individually by referendum or direct initiative. The only way to guarantee reversing the decision in what parents of current high school juniors and seniors consider to be a timely fashion is to replace the board members with people who will do the reversing. That is, not fixing the US History class for two years makes it more difficult for two years worth of students to pass the AP exam for college credit. I sympathize.
So, assuming that the recalls make this November’s ballots, how should I vote? Despite my feelings about recalls generally, in this case I’ll vote to remove the board members. Because I think that people who have so little grasp of the tactical reality they were facing don’t deserve to be on the board. “Let’s make a change in course content,” I hear some one of them saying. “Let’s pick a class that only students intending to go to college take, that matters to some extent to college admissions decisions, and that has a near-direct fiscal impact on their middle-class parents. What could go wrong?” What could go wrong indeed.
 Jeffco and Denver Public Schools go back and forth as to which is the largest in the state, each with around 85,000 students. Both are in the top 40 largest districts in the country.
 So I’m not entirely consistent. Write good comments.
 Colorado struggled to win much Race to the Top funding despite outstanding scores in almost all regards because those dollars came with policy strings attached and the state can’t guarantee that individual school boards will implement those policies. One of the broad complaints leveled at Race to the Top was that it unfairly favored older states where decentralization was much less part of the culture in determining how state and local authority was divided.