Littwin: Blame Julie Williams for Colorado’s education “reform” fail

It’s probably not altogether fair to put the stunning defeat of so-called education “reformers” around the state 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 Jeffco school board would not have been possible without her.

And I’m pretty sure the momentum that swept across Jefferson County was also 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’s famously uninformed attack on the AP U.S. History curriculum, it’s unlikely enough people would have noticed to make any difference.

Teachers walked out, then students walked out. The local TV cameras showed up, then the national TV cameras showed up. Williams’s 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 News9 – 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 #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory 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 two to one in each case. When you have a two-to-one 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 was also 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.


  1. “When you have a two-to-one vote, it’s never one thing. It’s all things.”

    Exactly! As a parent of two Jeffco students who strongly supported and campaigned for the recall, I want to be clear that the recall is not anti-charters or anti-charter expansion. We appreciate our charter schools and love the ability to choose alternate learning approaches for our children. What we don’t like is the “more charters = better” approach that the board majority pushed for, nor the fact that they want to bring in charter schools managed by out-of-state, for-profit companies that give charter parents very little say on their board of directors. The board majority told the superintendent that he should be soliciting more charter applications during his recent review. We disagree. We welcome the opportunity for charters to apply if they are interested, but we do not see a benefit to adding more charter schools who may not be interested in being here for families who may not be interested in attending them.

    The same is true for merit pay. There are a number of voters who like the idea of pay-for-performance, but what we objected to was the way it was implemented. Jeffco had already been involved in a three-year pay-for-performance pilot study and the board had been receiving regular updates on that study–until these three were elected. Not only did they not mention their desire for a pay-for-performance model until after months of negotiation with JCEA, after federal mediation, after signing and then reneging on a tentative agreement, and after spending thousands more taxpayer dollars for a third-party fact-finder to go through every line of the contract (as opposed to only the contested items), and then rejecting those recommendations. Everyone expected at that point that the three would simply adopt the contract with the changes they wanted to the tentative agreement, but no–Witt whips out a graph with no numbers and only a vague idea of what he thinks would be a good performance pay system and the other two said “sure, sounds good, let’s go ahead with it.” That moment alone was jaw-dropping, not because it was a pay for performance system but because of the utter lack of careful planning. If Witt had introduced the idea months earlier when the district was working on the budget and details could have been discussed with JCEA, that would have been acceptable. If he had suggested at the time that he wanted to see such a model for the next school year (rather than the one that had already started), that would have been acceptable. Approving a model with unknown details and directing district staff to figure out those details, complete with a budget impact and specific numbers–in a mere week and over Labor Day weekend no less? That’s irresponsible lunacy. It’s disrespectful to everyone. It doesn’t motivate teachers to work harder or better, but it did motivate several hundred to pull out their resumes and head elsewhere.

    As for merit pay? It’s not clear that the clean slate candidates will immediately jump back into the old system of steps and levels or whether they’ll look for a modified approach. But what they will do is talk with staff and teachers to determine how to build a system that is acceptable for all parties.

    Some of their reforms might have succeeded if they had worked with the Jeffco community instead of against us. That’s not the path they chose, and no matter how much they try to blame fictional, Chicago-style union bosses and other nonsense, the fact will remain that this is Jeffco, and in Jeffco the community will not be silenced.

    Thank you so much for your column!

  2. FYI – Thompson School District is in Loveland (the city, not the ski area) and Berthoud. It’s beautiful here, come visit!!! Otherwise, nice article.

  3. My husband is a Jefferson county teacher, he has been teaching for over 10 years, he joined Jeffco shortly after the board got elected b/c it was the first opportunity he had in 10 years at an art teacher position. We are very happy he that he got the position.

    Given this background you will likely understand my position much better.

    Here is the problem with pay for merit as executed in Jeffco last year. The corporate world gives pay raises and as you progress you get a chance to move up the pay scale. If Jefferson county is to keep highly talented teachers teachers they must be able to rise in pay over time, and at the very minimum increase to pay should be an annual cost of living adjustment. Given the rising rents in the Denver Metro area, this minimal raise is absolutely necessary just so you can afford to continue teaching. If we can keep this in mind and build a fair evaluation system on top of the cost of living increase I don’t believe people will fight this system. If however, we give highly qualified teacher a raise that is less then the cost of living adjustment, then this system will be doomed to fail before we even start.
    Further, if an effective and reputable evaluator finds that all or perhaps even 80% of teachers in a school are in fact highly effective we should also accept that. Plotting all teacher performances on a bell curve and determining that that based on this the bottom 20% must be ineffective… is not a workable situation. We must foster teacher to teacher cooperation and partnerships. Thus all teachers must have the possibility of a highly effective status, something that may happen, especially amongst veterans that have dedicated their live to this profession, and dedicated themselves to the district.

  4. Great column. The recall of the pro-gun control legislators indeed marked a new era — successful recalls based on objections to stances on issues rather than based on dishonesty or malfeasance in office. So it goes. What goes around comes around; the genie is out of the bottle.

  5. This may be the most honest column Mr. Littwin has written in, well, ever and for that he deserves credit.

    He begins by warning that what follows is more fairy tale than fact: “It’s probably not altogether fair to put the stunning defeat of so-called education “reformers” around the state on Julie Williams, but let’s do it anyway.”

    And he didn’t disappoint. In his own unfair way, Mr. Littwin managed to blame Ms. Williams for the defeat of educational reform. Of course, he might as well have started this assault on fairness with “Once upon a time in Jefferson County” but, again, at least he was honest.

    And the cavalcade of unprecedented honesty kept rolling. He admitted:

    “I’m not a fan of recalls.”
    He didn’t know “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,… “
    “Still, it’s not clear how much this vote was against charter school expansion or vouchers or merit pay.”
    “But this much is clear: Republicans had a great night in elections across the country — with Colorado being a notable exception.”

    You might ask how a columnist who is not a fan of recalls and doesn’t know what the vote really means and admits agenda-driven zealots are elected because of uninformed voters could consider Tuesday’s vote a “victory”?

    After all, doesn’t Mr. Littwin strongly suggest Tuesday’s winners were elected by uninformed voters?

    And is Mr. Littwin trying to equate a semi-meaningless Colorado school board recall election with Republicans “great night” in other elections across the country?

    This is how the New York Times summarizes Tuesday’s Republican victories:

    “(Republicans) won the night’s biggest election, Matt Bevin’s upset victory for Kentucky governor. Religious conservatives defeated the anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston. Republicans held onto the Virginia Senate, keeping control of both houses of the legislature, in a big defeat for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The sheriff under fire for the San Francisco’s sanctuary city approach to immigration was defeated.”

    Obviously Colorado’s elections are far less significant but at least in reporting “Republicans had a great night in elections across the country“ Mr. Littwin is attempting honesty and it may mark his return to journalistic integrity. Just kidding, it would take a lot more than one column to do that.

    And he might consider his “stance” on guns as his next foray into honesty.

    This from the Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2015:

    “Nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee was targeted because of his father’s gang ties, lured into a South Side alley Monday afternoon and executed, Chicago police officials said Thursday.

    Speaking at the edge of the Gresham alley where Tyshawn was shot multiple times, Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy called the slaying “probably the most abhorrent, cowardly, unfathomable crime” he had seen in his 35 years in law enforcement.

    McCarthy said police believe Tyshawn was killed because of his father’s gang ties and a recent series of shootings between rival gangs.”

    This is the type of horrific tragedy Mr. Littwin purposely chooses to ignore. Why?

    I don’t know either but I know this: It’s not journalism.

    I don’t expect any answers from Mr. Littwin because that would require courage, a word he’d have to look up in the dictionary.


    Courage enlarges, cowardice diminishes resources. In desperate straits the fears of the timid aggravate the dangers that imperil the brave. – Christian Nestell Bovee

    “Last week, police charged 35-year-old David Lopez Jackson, who is black, with setting two of the fires. “Forensic evidence linked him to the fire on Oct. 18 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1011 Theobald Street,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, and “video of his car near New Life Missionary Baptist Church, 4569 Plover Avenue, links him to the fire there on Oct. 17, police Chief Sam Dotson said.” Jackson is a suspect in the other fires and additional charges are pending.” – Michelle Malkin

    “The resistance of liberals in the media to new ideas was enormous. Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It’s so simplistic!” – Camille Paglia Salon

    “I support anyone’s right to be who they want to be. My question is: to
    what extent do I have to participate in your self-image?” – Dave Chappelle

    “This new Dream, seeking revolutionary change in how America works, is not only impossible, but based on the faulty assumption that black Americans are the world’s first group who can only excel under ideal conditions. We are perhaps the first people on earth taught to consider it insulting when someone suggests we try to cope with the system as it is—even when that person is black, or even the President.” – John McWhorter, Daily Beast

    “..Bernie(Sanders)is the most benign of summer flings.” Mike Littwin

    “’Cause I don’t have no use
    For what you loosely call the truth” – Tina Turner

    Greenlight a Vet
    Folds of Honor
    Veterans Day – November 11, 2015

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