McClymonds High School in Oakland Unified School District, which voted May 28 to support the state's proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. (Photo/Wikimedia-Daniel Olsen-CC BY 2.5)
McClymonds High School in Oakland Unified School District, which voted May 28 to support the state's proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. (Photo/Wikimedia-Daniel Olsen-CC BY 2.5)

Oakland school board votes to support ethnic studies curriculum

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The Oakland Unified School Board has passed a resolution supporting a statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high school that came under heavy criticism last year for excluding Jewish history and the history of other ethnic groups.

The draft curriculum, which is currently undergoing revisions, also omitted serious discussion of anti-Semitism; elevated the cause of BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel; and included references to the “nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe,” referring to the creation of the State of Israel).

The vote, taken just before 2 a.m. Friday near the end of a marathon 10-hour board meeting, was four in support of the resolution, two against, with one abstention. Oakland, a diverse district that operates 13 public high schools, now joins Castro Valley, West Contra Costa County, Hayward, Albany and San Francisco as the latest Bay Area school district voting to support the original ethnic studies curriculum. A similar resolution was tabled by the Vallejo school board on May 6.

The draft curriculum, rejected last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond and other state government officials, is currently being revised and will be available for public scrutiny in August. As J. reported on May 22, state education officials told Jewish lawmakers that the revised curriculum will delete all references to BDS.

With its May 28 vote, the Oakland school board did not actually adopt the original version but merely expressed support for it.

That left room for some confusion going forward, according to OUSD board president Jody London, who voted against the resolution.

“It’s unclear whether [the resolution supports] the original version being revised, or adopting whatever is ultimately adopted,” she said. “That was one of my criticisms. What is it we’re directing the superintendent to do?” 

The resolution language “affirms support of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Draft as written by ethnic studies experts from across the state,” and further supports “maintaining its framing and language of the discipline,” though it allows for “additional scaffolding as necessary to be inclusive and supportive of multiple users.”

It also affirms support of “the celebration of pre-colonial knowledge and worldviews, critical analysis of various forms of oppression, transformative resistance, and radical healing toward our vision of social justice.” 

What any of this means in practical terms is unclear. However the board’s decision left some in the East Bay Jewish community unhappy. “It went terribly,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham of the vote. “I was not surprised, but I’m very concerned.” 

Bloom was one of six Oakland rabbis to sign a May 22 letter to the school board urging rejection of the resolution. Although they strongly support the notion of a high school ethnic studies program, the rabbis’ letter referenced concerns by the California Legislative Jewish Caucus that the original curriculum “erases the Jewish experience, fails to discuss antisemitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, and would institutionalize the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our schools.” 

Some Jews supported the resolution, including Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. Noily’s support, along with that of Jewish Voice for Peace, was mentioned in the language of the resolution. Other named groups in support include the Arab American Studies Association, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, California State University Council on Ethnic Studies, the California Teachers Association and the Oakland Education Association.

Noily told J. they were “gratified” that the board endorsed the curriculum. “I hope members of the Jewish community will look at the curriculum more closely, and especially will take time to listen to the many young people of color who are sharing about their life-changing experiences through engaging with ethnic studies in school.”

Going forward, opponents of the various school board resolutions are calculating next steps. Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, AJC’s Northern California director, told J. via email that adopting an ethnic studies curriculum “is too important for the students of California, especially the minority students, to let this opportunity slip away.”

In that respect, she said she agreed with the intent of the Oakland school board and others in promoting the value of ethnic studies. But, she added, “the original curriculum included materials that should be revised — as many have acknowledged, including the school board members, even as they voted to endorse the draft as written. AJC will continue to work tirelessly through our advocacy and coalition building to see that an ethnic studies curriculum is uplifting and inclusive, and implemented in ways that will benefit the diversity of our great state.”

Opponents note that the original curriculum, with all of its controversial components, is nowhere near close to being introduced into classrooms.

“There are many steps before anything is taught,” said London. “You have to adopt a curriculum, train the teachers, be sure they deliver it with fidelity. Adoption is a really long process. This [vote] is not the be all, end all.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.