A law signed in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) mandated that California create an ethnic studies course. An advisory committee constituted mostly of K-12th grade teachers and professors was appointed in 2018 by the State Board of Education to draft a curriculum that could be used by local school systems to create their own courses.
Linda Darling-Hammond, who was appointed president of the state Board of Education by Brown’s successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), said in an interview that the draft would undergo major changes. The board has not officially been given the draft from the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which received it a few months ago, made some changes and posted it on the state Education Department’s website for public comment through Aug. 15.
Darling-Hammond issued a statement with Ilene Straus, vice president of the Board of Education, and board member Feliza I. Ortiz-Licon, saying, “A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all. The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”
Drafters of the proposed curriculum and their supporters say it is important for students to view the world in a way not promoted by the powerful.
The Cal Matters website quoted R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a member of the advisory committee that worked on the draft, as saying, “Sometimes people want to approach ethnic studies as just a superficial diversity class and that’s it. Ethnic studies is an academic field of over 50 years that has its own frameworks, its own academic language, its own understandings of how it approaches subjects and our world.”
Jewish lawmakers and groups wrote to education officials, expressing deep concerns with some language in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) draft and saying that Jews are virtually ignored. For example, while there is expansive attention give to Arab Americans and the stereotypes they face, there is no such attention given to Jewish Americans. And there is language encouraging teachers to promote a campaign to boycott, divest from and place sanctions on Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
The California Legislative Jewish Caucus said in a letter to the Instructional Quality Commission:
Despite the significant contributions of Jews to California’s history, politics, culture, and government — and our community’s longstanding struggle against hatred and discrimination — the ESMC effectively erases the American Jewish experience. Indeed, notwithstanding widespread agreement that Judaism is a form of identity that is broader than religion, and the inclusion of religion in sample courses for African American, Native American, Latin American, and Arab American Studies, Jews are essentially excluded from the ESMC. . . .While the ESMC specifies the importance of studying hate crimes, white supremacy, bias, prejudice, and discrimination, and specifically discusses bias against other communities, it omits any meaningful discussion of antisemitism. . . .In the few instances where the ESMC actually acknowledges Jews, it does so in a denigrating and discriminatory manner. For example, the ESMC recommends song lyrics that inappropriately delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with strong bias and little nuance, and asserts that Israelis “use the press so they can manufacture," a classic antisemitic trope about Jewish control of the media.
The draft curriculum says that ethnic studies courses created by districts from the proposed curriculum will:
- cultivate empathy, community actualization, cultural perpetuity, self-worth, self-determination, and the holistic well-being of all participants, especially Native People/s and people of color;
- critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.
Many of the comments on the department’s website are critical, such as this one posted by Malka Weitman, a Berkeley resident:
My objections go far beyond specific pages or citations. This entire curriculum reads as an extreme political agenda being presented under cover of an ethnic studies program. At a time when many of us are concerned about the divisive right-wing bigotry we hear from Donald Trump, this curriculum exposes our children to the equally divisive bigotry of the extreme left.
She and other critics said if the curriculum were to be adopted, many people would take their children out of California’s public schools.
Some Californians wrote in support, including Natalia Deeb-Sossa, an associate professor in the Chicana/o studies department of the University of California at Davis. In a letter posted on the website, she said ethnic studies are important to “cultivate critical thinking and problem solving, civic and cultural awareness, collaboration, adaptability, and resilience through a curriculum that is centered on the perspectives of historically marginalized groups."
She also attacked the Anti-Defamation League, one of the Jewish groups that protested the draft curriculum, accusing it of supporting oppressive Israeli government actions.
“Given their actions and principles, I call for members of the California Department of Education and State Board of Education to accept the Model Curriculum as is or with minor changes,” Deeb-Sossa wrote.