California

Controversial California ethnic studies curriculum moves forward, could roll out in 2020

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond stands with members of the Jewish legislative caucus at a news conference Wednesday at the Department of Education in Sacramento discussing the state’s ethnic studies draft curriculum. From left: Assemblyman Marc Berman, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Sen. Ben Allen, Assemblyman Jose Medina and Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel.
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond stands with members of the Jewish legislative caucus at a news conference Wednesday at the Department of Education in Sacramento discussing the state’s ethnic studies draft curriculum. From left: Assemblyman Marc Berman, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Sen. Ben Allen, Assemblyman Jose Medina and Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel.

Dozens of teachers, activists, former officials and community members from all over California packed the California Department of Education on Friday to give their input on how the state should move forward with the ethnic studies curriculum.

The curriculum, which was shelved because of its controversy, was put back on the table this week after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced Monday he supported a plan to revise the curriculum. The State Board of Education will vote on it in 2020.

The curriculum, which is being created through a bill signed in 2016, is currently meant to serve as a guideline for schools, and an ethnic studies course would be a requirement for high school graduation. Currently, one out of five California high schools offer a course in ethnic studies.

On Friday, the education department’s Instructional Quality Commission, which advises the state board on curriculum issues, met and listened to hours of public comment both for and against the curriculum.

Many of the original 18-member committee who created the curriculum spoke in support of keeping the draft, and revising it. More than 8,000 people signed a petition to save the curriculum.

The proposed 550-page curriculum was designed by ethnic studies leaders from various school districts and universities, appointed by the State Board of Education. It received support from 22 California State University Ethnic Studies departments, educational leaders throughout the state, and both the San Francisco Unified and San Diego Unified School Districts.

Curriculum under scrutiny

But the curriculum was also met with criticism from various groups, namely the Jewish Caucus and Jewish and pro-Israel community organizations. The Jewish legislative caucus criticized the draft curriculum, stating in a letter written to the Instructional Quality Commission that the curriculum omits discussions of anti-Semitism and delves into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “with strong bias and little nuance.” The caucus also stated that the curriculum is too critical of Israel.

The letter prompted a quick response from Thurmond, who said the new draft should discuss anti-Semitism and the contributions of Jewish people.

Both those in support and against the draft said on Friday that anti-Semitism should be included in a new draft. Supporters of the draft said including anti-Semitism should not mean that Arab-American studies and Palestinian history be removed.

A state bill to mandate ethnic studies was delayed amid the controversy. A bill now on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would give the Instructional Quality Commission an additional year to recommend a curriculum. It would also provide more time for the State Board of Education to adopt a model curriculum.

“This extended timeline will be a tremendous asset in the revision process, allowing the CDE greater flexibility to engage with teachers, students, and other ethnic studies experts to arrive at a curriculum that is inclusive, appropriate for all learners and embraced by our teachers,” read a statement from education department spokesman Scott Roark.

“We look forward to working closely with the CDE on the project from here until its eventual ratification,” R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, spokesman for Save CA Ethnic Studies, said in a statement. “In a sense, [the state superintendent’s] statement is a win for our Save CA Ethnic Studies movement, though there are still questions we have and clarifications needed. We know the journey is still in its early stages — which is unfortunate for our students who have waited long enough already. The 50+ year struggle for Ethnic Studies lives on. Due to these current circumstances, we are emerging more united and stronger than ever now, and that is a beautiful thing, for past, present, and future generations.”

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Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who is serving on an ethnic studies panel to consult with the state to complete the draft, said that 99 percent of the curriculum is good. Teachers and professors agreed, asking that the state not throw out the entire draft and consider revising it instead.

During Friday’s public meeting, several civic groups representing other communities — including Armenian, Hindu and Punjabi communities — voiced concern that the curriculum omits their communities’ struggles when immigrating to the U.S. At one point, former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who spoke in support of the draft, was verbally barraged by attendees. Some attendees asked, “Why was my ethnic group not included in the draft?”

But state officials and the ethnic studies committee made a distinction: This is not a multicultural curriculum. It was created with the intention to cover four groups: Black/African American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Native American Studies and Asian American Studies.

The draft curriculum additionally provides sample courses for ethnic communities often grouped under Asian Americans: Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“If you study what the historic framework has been for ethnic studies, that has typically focused on four distinct groups,” Thurmond said addressing the Jewish caucus’ concerns. “There’s no intentional omission of the experiences of Jewish Americans, but, in fact, we think that there should be mention of the contributions of Jewish Americans.”

Weber said that’s causing the main problem.

“If you include one group, you include another and another,” Weber said. “Where do we draw the line?”

Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, said he supported the removal of a lesson on the Palestine-Israel conflict because it was imbalanced. While he welcomed discussion on the boycott movement against Israel, he questioned if it belonged in curriculum aimed at covering oppression in the U.S.

“I am heartened to hear that people think those things should be out of the curriculum,” Allen said.

Curriculum draft supported

Community members, including two dozen Jewish groups in California who supported the curriculum, stated they believed the Arab-American studies should be included in the curriculum, and like other communities of color, it could not be discussed without the mention of oppression.

In a statement, Jewish Voice for Peace stated that it is important to teach about anti-Semitism, as well as the inclusion of Arab-Americans and Palestinian history and that learning about their displacement is not anti-Semitic.

State Board of Education member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said there won’t be an attempt to pull the plug on the entire draft, and the guidelines need to cover justice, race, equity and indigenity.

“We want to make sure students have tools to understand oppression,” she said.

“Communities of color have been the focus of the field, because of the severe marginalization of our communities in K-12 euro-centric curriculum,” Cuauhtin, the Save CA Ethnic Studies spokesman, said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee. “Ethnic Studies is responsive to all students, that’s one of its major strengths, and there is definitely space for more inclusivity within our framework — it just can’t be at the cost of erasing communities of color and our disciplinary framing from the center of our own field.”

Cuauhtin said he recommends that anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness, and anti-Indigeneity be included as forms of oppression in the glossary, along with other revisions. He said that anti-Semitism is already present as a form of oppression in the curriculum, along with Islamophobia, but said both should be included more often in the document.

In a piece published on Thursday, State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond stated that the board needed time to get the curriculum right.

“We must arrive at a curriculum that meets the many aspirations policymakers, educators, and students have for it and fully aligns with California’s values of inclusivity, empathy, accuracy, and honesty,” Darling-Hammond stated in the article.

Darling-Hammond, Weber and the State Board of Education noted that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee and writers worked on the draft in a short time frame.

“Opportunities for students to learn about the contributions of many who have been unsung while they take up issues of social justice and inclusion and learn about their own heritages will strengthen their ability to create strong common ground for our shared future,” she stated. “We appreciate the committee’s hard work and the many productive components they developed for the document.”

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee has since dissolved after the work was completed, but IQC member Yolanda Munoz and the California Teachers Association want the committee to still work with the state in revising the draft.

The Bee’s Elaine Chen contributed to this report.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.
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