(REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

MORRISON, COLO. — If future high school classes ever study the recent conflict over the AP U.S. history curriculum in Jefferson County, Colo., they will probably learn it was a battle in America’s endless culture wars.

At least that’s what they’ll learn if the history books reflect the predominant media narrative about the uproar: Concerned students, parents and teachers rose up against what they saw as right-wing thought control by the Denver suburb’s conservative-led school board, which had floated a plan to ensure that AP US history “promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system” and does “not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”

Having spent several days reviewing events in conversations with people on both sides in “JeffCo,” however, I have a slightly different take. The real moral of the story is that conservative school reformers have some good ideas, but they need to be a lot smarter about carrying them out than the Jefferson County Board of Education was – because their opponents, including teachers unions, will pounce on their slightest mistake.

To understand what happened in Jefferson County, you have to understand what happened next door in Douglas County, a heavily Republican suburb, over the last few years. “DougCo” voters elected conservative reformers to the school board who implemented a strong school-choice policy agenda. When the contract with the teachers union expired, the board ended both collective bargaining and the union dues check-off on teacher paychecks. These actions were perfectly legal in Colorado and the union was helpless to reverse them.

Then, in 2013, three conservatives won the election for Jefferson County’s five-member school board, backed by the same forces – the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity (of Koch brothers fame) and school-choice activists such as Steve Schuck, a Colorado Springs real estate developer – that had supported the Douglas County conservatives.

Suddenly, the union feared a repeat of the “DougCo” ouster – only this time in 86,000-student JeffCo, the state’s second largest school district, where affiliates of the National Education Association collect millions of dollars in dues each year. (DougCo’s union was a branch of the American Federation of Teachers.) Having also been overwhelmingly defeated in a 2103 referendum campaign for higher taxes to fund schools, the NEA could ill afford another major setback.

When the JeffCo school board’s new majority installed a superintendent sympathetic to their agenda, and began working on a new pay system that would reward teachers according to annual performance ratings, the union cried foul, complaining that the board had violated various rules and regulations. Kerrie Dallman, the president of Colorado’s NEA branch, declared a “crisis” and brought in NEA cadre from as far away as California. During the 2014 summer vacation, these organizers met with teachers at their homes, distributing talking points and, crucially, urging them to let the union deduct dues directly from their bank accounts, according to two teachers who received visits. The NEA was “dug in and going to total war,” says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster and consultant with years of experience in local politics.

But even though Jefferson County is far more evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats than Douglas County, the union campaign got little traction. The union’s objections were mainly procedural, the board’s actions were consistent with the new majority’s campaign promises – and the pay-for-performance system made a lot of sense to voters. Under the new plan, teachers ranked “highly effective” would get the biggest raises and those ranked “ineffective” – fewer than 100 out of about 5,000 — would get none.

The board scheduled its final vote on the new pay system for Sept. 18. For at least a week prior to that date, emails had circulated among teachers urging them to call in sick on Sept. 19 to protest what the union saw, correctly, as an inevitable board vote in favor of pay for performance. Arguably illegal, the teacher “sickout” might have turned many parents against the union. But at the Sept. 18 meeting, conservative board member Julie Williams also proposed a new committee to scour the AP US history curriculum for alleged left-wing bias.

To be sure, the College Board’s 150-page revised plan for AP U.S. history is a tendentious bore. The section on World War II, for example, mentions “the attack on Pearl Harbor,” but not the country that carried it out. It alludes to U.S. concentration camps for Japanese Americans, but not the ones run by Hitler (also not named) that Americans liberated. Still, ideological bias is nothing new in U.S. history classes; nowadays, it’s typically leftish, but my text book in Maryland taught that Reconstruction was a disaster brought on by scheming carpetbaggers and scalawags.

Given their more pressing local institutional goals, and given the natural fears of parents to do anything that might complicate their college-bound kids’ access to AP classes, it was a huge strategic blunder for the Jefferson County reformers to get caught up in this particular right-wing kulturkampf.

Another member of the majority, John Newkirk, quickly introduced milder language to replace Williams’ measure. By then, though, news of the board’s “censorship” of AP US history had started spreading on social media.

Parents and students hit the streets, denouncing not only “censorship” but also, oddly enough, the new pay plan for teachers. It would be wrong to say that teachers or their union manipulated the student protests; many in Jefferson County genuinely objected to perceived ideological bias in their classes. Clearly, though, union backers encouraged the protests and made as much political hay from the uproar as they could.

The story made headlines from Los Angeles to New York; the American Historical Association’s executive director denounced the board and praised the students; the College Board, which administers AP exams and devised the curriculum at issue in Jefferson County, also pressured the school board. At an Oct. 2 school board meeting, packed with teachers and their sympathizers shouting “recall,” the board back-tracked, agreeing to refer the whole curriculum issue to a series of committees. The issue died down thereafter, as the state’s bitterly contested elections for governor, senator and state legislature took center stage.

Knowledgeable participants in the drama tell me, however, that the board has been durably damaged in public opinion and it’s just a matter of time before the union starts collecting signatures on petitions to recall all three conservatives. It will be expensive – but the union has nothing to lose. If the conservative majority survives, it would likely end collective bargaining upon the expiration of the current contract in mid-2015, just as the Douglas County board did. Steve Schuck told me the school board majority had every right to question the new AP curriculum, but handled the issue so “inartfully,” as he put it, that it “this just gave the union the ammunition they needed to undermine and sabotage and try to distract.”

Or, as the union and its supporters might put it, to win.