ByElizabeth Castillo, CalMatters
California’s embattled plan for an ethnic-studies curriculum in public high schools — excoriated by opponents as too politically correct, too pedantic and anti-Semitic in its draft form — could soon get a reprieve.
As education officials revise the draft, a bill to extend their deadline for a year awaits action by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is expected to approve it.
The governor told J. The Jewish News of Northern California last month that the draft “will never see the light of day.” He resolved to make sure the draft “is only that, a draft, that will be substantially amended.”
The curriculum would be used as a guide for schools across the state to diversify the perspectives presented to students. Advocates of ethnic studies say that courses currently taught in school can be too Eurocentric.
Under a 2016 law, the ethnic studies program must be submitted by the advisory Instructional Quality Commission to the State Board of Education by Dec. 31 of this year. The board must adopt the curriculum by March 31 of next year. The bill on Newsom’s desk would extend both deadlines by a year.
Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, an Encino Democrat and vice-chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, is supportive of ethnic studies but found the draft offensive. He said a deadline extension would be a great move, providing “time for more input, more listening, more collaboration. And hopefully over the next year, everyone working on this can come up with a draft that’s more accurate, free of bias and reflects the visions of the Legislature.”
Others say an extension could be a slippery slope, perhaps leading to a watered-down program of study. A petition circulating online by the Save California Ethnic Studies Coalition calls for state officials to meet several demands and ensure that the draft stays focused on communities of color. With more than 8,000 signatures, the petition includes such demands as not converting the curriculum to less specific multicultural studies or diversity studies and improving transparency and accountability in revising the draft.
“Will the state really listen to the experts as they define the ethnic studies curriculum? How much … will the conversation and the opinions of those who are non-experts weigh,” wondered Theresa Montaño, a spokesperson for the coalition. “You had a lot of non-experts here with strong feelings, but they don’t know ethnic studies.”
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat and commission member, agreed to serve on an ethnic studies panel and consult the department on the curriculum. Weber helped launch Africana studies at San Diego State University and has taught the subject for 40 years. She also helped establish ethnic studies at k-12 schools in California.
The Instructional Quality Commission met Friday to discuss the draft. At the meeting, Weber stressed the importance of a focused curriculum, of not going too broad, or trying to “just drop things in.”
If the draft deadline is extended, the state plans to host feedback sessions with ethnologists, teachers and others interested in providing input. Education officials also plan to host sessions across the state to hear from the roughly 200 school districts that have already implemented some form of ethnic studies.
Stephanie Gregson, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction and a representative of the California Department of Education — which wants revisions — recommended at the meeting that the commission pause any action on the draft until Newsom acts on the extension bill.
Gregson had said earlier in a prepared statement that extra time would give the department full opportunity to “arrive at a curriculum that is inclusive, appropriate for all learners and embraced by our teachers.”
In a summary of comments prepared for the commission, nearly 400 comments support the initial draft. Nearly 19,000 others express concern about the omission of the Jewish-American experience and dislike the inclusion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes Palestinian interests and a boycott against Israel. Nearly 600 comments lament the teaching of ethnic studies at all.
Advocates of ethnic studies say the pros outweigh the cons. At a Sept. 10 school district board meeting in San Diego, Superintendent Cindy Marten urged those in attendance to sign the coalition’s petition and said she would add her name. Marten said the district shares some concerns that have been raised about the draft, but debating those issues is part of creating a good curriculum.
“We must not allow the process to be derailed,” she said. “This is a defining equity issue of our time in this state.” The San Diego Unified School District will require students to take an ethnic studies course by the 2021-2022 school year.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.