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Political Chaos in Colorado’s Jefferson County Schools Illustrates Problems of Government Control

Unsurprisingly, special-interest political conflicts are again flaring up in regard to government schools, this time in Jefferson County, Colorado (where I live). Since September 19, some teachers have staged “sick-outs.” These involve teachers calling in “sick” the day before they are supposed to teach, but especially late in the day, so as to reduce the possibility that they could be replaced in time—resulting in the closure of several schools. And students at numerous schools have staged walkouts during school hours to protest the policies and proposals of the conservative-majority school board.

A main issue at stake is the negotiation of terms between the school board and the teacher’s union, the Jefferson County Education Association. Among other things, teachers are “upset about an evaluation-based system for awarding raises,” the Denver Post reports. Part of the context is that the board of another Colorado county, Douglas County, implemented a merit-based pay system last year, and teachers in Jefferson County feared their board was following the “Douglas County playbook” in this matter and others.

Because the teachers’ union could not very well make a political campaign out of the slogan “Incompetent teachers should make the same as competent ones,” its leaders seized on another wedge issue: the teaching of history. Teachers and the students supporting them claimed that the board was trying to “censor” or “whitewash” the teaching of American history, particularly as taught through the Advanced Placement U.S. History course (APUSH).

The debate over the APUSH course is taking place across the nation, not just in Jefferson County. In August, the Republican National Committee criticized the APUSH course, claiming that it “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” On September 15, the Texas Board of Education declared that students in that state would “learn only state-mandated curriculum—not be taught to the national [APUSH] test,” the Associated Press reported.

On September 18, one of the conservative board members in Jefferson County proposed (among other things) that a board-appointed committee review the APUSH course to assure that materials promote “respect for authority,” “not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Although much more could be said about the contents of the AP history course (which, among other things, directs students to give “special attention . . . to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities”), the broader point is that the reason teacher contracts and choices of curricula are driven by special-interest group politics in Jefferson County and across the nation is that government owns and operates the schools in question.

If government schools were privatized, as they should be (see “Education in a Free Society” and “The Educational Bonanza in Privatizing Government Schools”), owners of a school would be free to offer merit-based pay to teachers (or not), to fire incompetent teachers (or not), and to otherwise establish policies for their teachers. Likewise, teachers would be free to accept those terms or to seek employment elsewhere. If a school did not offer sufficiently appealing terms to teachers, the school would suffer from lack of staff or go out of business. If parents liked the teachers of a particular school, they would be free to seek enrollment for their children there; if parents did not like the teachers of a particular school, they would be free to take their children and their education dollars elsewhere.

Owners of a school in a free market would also be free to choose the curriculum they deemed best, and to choose how much latitude to give their teachers in adapting a curriculum. Again, teachers would be free to seek employment at schools that best fit their beliefs and style of teaching. And parents would be free to seek enrollment for their children in those schools that, in the parents’ judgment, offered the best curriculum, teaching, and overall education.

So long as government controls education, government controls education, and political fights over education are inevitable and unending. The alternative, as Americans must learn if they wish to achieve a high-quality, choice-driven education system, is liberty in education, meaning the complete separation of school and state.

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