Berman stands at the front of a room addressing an audience
Assembly member Marc Berman discusses the state high school ethnic studies curriculum at the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Final vote Thursday on ethnic studies curriculum

On Thursday, California’s State Board of Education plans to finally adopt the model curriculum for ethnic studies that has been at the center of a political and ideological controversy for nearly two years.

By law, the 11-member body, responsible for policy-making decisions affecting K-12 schools in the state, must approve the curriculum by the end of the month, a deadline the legislature already delayed one year. It plans to do so on the third day of its March meeting, which began Tuesday; the meeting will be held virtually and will include a comment period during which members of the public can speak for up to one minute.

Jewish organizations are expressing a wide range of opinions about the textbook-length curriculum in its close-to-final form.

Most are commending revisions they say transformed the document from one shot-through with “anti-Jewish bias” — in the words of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus in the summer of 2019 — to one that, if not ideal, is at least satisfactory.

It’s not a “perfect curriculum,” said Tye Gregory, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “We have to prioritize the issues our community is responding to.”

The first priority, according to Gregory, was a reform of the original version’s perceived anti-Jewish slant and the removal of “overtly problematic material,” he said. In his view, that has been accomplished: Sections critical of Israel, like support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, were removed; the topic of antisemitism, almost entirely absent from the first draft, was added at multiple points; and two lessons on Jewish Americans were included in a section on “Interethnic Bridge-building.”

But lingering concerns remain for Jewish groups and leaders, including Gregory, who acknowledged advocacy efforts will continue on the school-district level well after the ESMC is approved.

For example, a number of Jewish organizations are arguing that the sample lesson on antisemitism and Middle Eastern Jews, one of the two lessons on Jewish Americans added to the draft last year, should be moved from the Interethnic Bridge-building section, where it currently sits along with lessons on Armenians, Arab Americans and Sikhs, to an earlier section within Asian American and Pacific Islander studies. Asian American studies is one of the four core groups of ethnic studies.

Problems brought up by Jewish community groups have to do with perceived ideological bias or problematic source material.

On Feb. 26, the S.F.-based nonprofit JIMENA, which stands for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, sent a letter to the State Board of Education asking for the lesson it wrote to appear earlier in the draft, after one on South Asian Americans, which tackles Islamophobia.

The lesson on South Asian Americans “addresses xenophobia and Islamophobia with nuance,” JIMENA said. “The Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies section will be greatly enriched if it includes this lesson on antisemitism, pairing shared struggles against hate.”

The letter was cosigned by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and nine other Jewish organizations.

Other problems brought up by Jewish community groups have to do with perceived ideological bias or problematic source material used for sample lessons, particularly within the Arab American studies section.

L.A.-based StandWithUs expressed reserved support for the current draft — which it says “remove[d] harmful material and further improve[d] multiple aspects of the curriculum” — but listed more than two dozen recommended edits, saying “we remain concerned about multiple new and old problems.” (The State Board of Education can make changes to the curriculum before approving it. Typically it relies on the guidance of the Instructional Quality Commission, which completed its review of the ESMC in November.)

SWU mentions the curriculum’s embrace of the Third World Liberation Front, a radical anti-colonial movement instrumental in the development of ethnic studies in the 1960s. The TWLF “rightly fought for the just cause of including communities of color in higher education,” SWU writes, offering a potential edit to the draft. “And at the same time espoused harmful ideas and ideologies in other areas.”

Of its harmful ideas and ideologies, SWU points to a TWLF leader, George Murray, a member of the Black Panthers, who during a 1968 speech in Fresno attacked Jews and called for “victory to the Arab people “ over Israel.

The TWLF and the Black Panthers feature in Sample Lesson 2: Social Movements and Student Civic Engagement, where students are introduced to the student strikes that led to the formation of ethnic studies and are asked to write down what they believe were the “key tactics/strategies, vision, and goals of the TWLF.”

Another issue raised by SWU is a reference to an academic paper that vilifies Israel.

In the introduction to Arab American studies, it’s suggested that students be shown a clip from a documentary called “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.”

The film, which is about Arabs portrayed negatively in U.S. movies, is based on an academic paper by the American political scientist and author Jack Shaheen; in the paper, Shaheen wrote “the state of Israel was founded on Palestinian land.” In 2015 he penned an op-ed under the headline “Israel uses Hollywood’s power to promote its own agenda.”

The full list of SWU’s recommendations can be found here.

Jose Medina presenting AB331 to the California Assembly Education Committee in March 2019. The bill would make ethnic studies a high school requirement. (Photo/Twitter-Jose Medina)
Assemblymember Jose Medina presenting the bill that kicked off the ethnic studies saga in 2019. (Photo/Twitter-Jose Medina)

Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, Northern California director of the AJC, said her organizations is “pleased with some of what we’ve seen” in terms of the curriculum’s “removal of antisemitic material” and proposed lessons on Jewish Americans.

That being said, she added, “ideological extremism” was “pervasive in the early draft and frankly, still remains.”

She emphasized her organization’s support for moving the JIMENA lesson, “particularly given the fact that the South Asian lesson plan includes material about Islamophobia, Muslims and Middle Eastern Arabs,” she said, adding it would be “appropriate to balance Middle Eastern representation” in that section.

Of the draft in its current form, Gregory said the Jewish community “should put a lot of stock in this, because it shores up the legitimacy of Jews being included in ethnic studies,” particularly as the course becomes more common in high schools around the country.

But that “doesn’t mean we can’t keep advocating for inclusion, and to strengthen our community’s reputation” moving forward.

Once the ESMC is approved, it will be available as a resource or “guidance document,” according to the California Department of Education, for teachers and administrators across the state. “Schools and districts may use it when developing an ethnic studies curriculum that best addresses local student needs,” the CDE says.

Legislation to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement passed overwhelmingly in the state legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said the model curriculum, which was still in the process of being revised, was “insufficiently balanced.” The bill would have required high schools to offer ethnic studies by 2025 and mandate it by 2029.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Jose Medina, criticized the veto and said he would reintroduce the measure.

The Board of Education meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and can be viewed on the CDE website.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.