California Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond during a March 18 meeting of the board. (Screenshot)
California Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond during a March 18 meeting of the board. (Screenshot)

Ethnic studies curriculum passes 11-0 after one final day of sparring

Updated March 19, 8:55 a.m.

California’s State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to approve a controversial model curriculum in ethnic studies for high schools, the first of its kind in the country.

The 11-0 vote came five years after the legislature first approved a bill requiring a different state body, the Instructional Quality Commission, to develop the draft, and more than 18 months after the initial version roiled the Jewish community for its exclusion of lessons on Jewish Americans and its harsh critiques of Israel.

The virtual public meeting Thursday included an acrimonious public comment period that lasted more than three hours. Many of the arguments made over the last year and a half — in the op-ed pages of local and national newspapers and in previous public meetings — were reiterated. Some read from scripts prepared by activist groups.

The public comments focused on whether the curriculum inappropriately carried a left-wing ideology into the classroom or whether, conversely, it had been “watered down” by conservative forces; whether Palestine and Palestinians belonged in the curriculum, or whether a critique of Israel risked demonizing Jews; whether the model focused too much on race or “critical race theory” in a way that would divide students rather than unite them; whether it was sufficiently anti-colonial or too much so; and whether, broadly speaking, it was appropriate for high schoolers.

Accusations against Jewish groups flew through the virtual space, with many claiming the curriculum had been “hijacked” or “whitewashed” by Zionist organizations and so-called “right-wing groups.”

Callers attacked the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council — groups that opposed the first draft. One person angrily called the ADL and JCRC “pro-apartheid groups.”

“Antiracist Jews oppose the hijacking of the curriculum by anti-Palestinian Zionist organizations,” said Ellen Brotsky, one of several speakers affiliated with Berkeley-based Jewish Voice for Peace that urged the board to vote no.

Another speaker pointed out “backlash from several Jewish Zionist organizations,” adding that it is “highly unusual” for “pro-Israel interest groups … to be involved in the shaping of” a curriculum such as this one.

Many Jewish callers spoke strongly in support of keeping Jewish Americans included in the model; many identified themselves as Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews.

“I have heard people call us Jews white, powerful, controlling,” said one man. “This is absurd … I can show you my skin. There is no white! … We are pro-Israel because we are Jews. Not because of the color of our skin.” He advocated on behalf of a lesson on Middle Eastern Jews and wanted the curriculum to include the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism (the model includes only a partial definition).

A woman who identified herself as an attorney in Los Gatos and the daughter of Holocaust survivors said she was in support of the model with some revisions and was dismayed at what she was hearing Thursday.

“I’m sick of comments that suggest that any criticism of the ethnic studies curriculum comes from white, right-wing activists,” she said, “or that Jews have tried to erase Arab Americans from the curriculum. That is not true.”

She suggested including information on how redlining, or housing discrimination, was applied to American Jews over the decades.

While some Jewish organizations remained unsatisfied with the final draft, others expressed reserved support for the outcome of the vote. The curriculum passed with a number of Jewish concerns addressed; it now includes two lessons on Jewish Americans, absent from the first version, in the section “Interethnic Bridge-building,” it discusses antisemitism at multiple points, and it does not mention the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The model curriculum approved today by the State Board of Education is a vast improvement over prior drafts and a win for everyone who fought to remove bigoted and discriminatory content about Jews and Israel,” said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Woodland Hills and state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, chair and vice chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, respectively, in a joint statement.

“The just-approved model curriculum, while not perfect, addresses the major concerns our community identified nearly two years ago,” said Tye Gregory, executive director of JCRC, the agency that works on behalf of the Bay Area Jewish community on critical issues affecting Jews.

Other groups, including StandWithUs, the AMCHA Initiative, the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies and the American Jewish Committee, still opposed the curriculum as written.

The national AJC office said in a statement Thursday that revisions were “a salve” but were “ultimately not curative of the fundamental flaws at the heart of the original curriculum, much of which represented a rigid ideological (but sharply contested) world view.”

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, an L.A.-based nonprofit focused on supporting Israel and combating global antisemitism, said the organization was “disappointed that this model curriculum was approved as is,” adding, “we are proud that so many spoke out at today’s meeting and for nearly two years leading up to this vote … without their voices, the curriculum would have been dramatically worse.”

The textbook-length model curriculum sparked more than 82,000 public comments over three review periods since the summer of 2019. More than 38,000 of them were summarized by the CDE as “Comments about Jewish Americans and/or antisemitism,” by far the most of any category.

The curriculum next will be edited by CDE staff to reflect minor changes and to include a definition of “critical race theory,” which State Board of Education members suggested was necessary to resolve confusion.

Using the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is not mandatory for schools or districts, though lawmakers in California are expected to require ethnic studies instruction of some kind in high schools, as they did last year within the California State University system.

Though all 11 members voted to greenlight the ESMC, board members stressed they viewed it as an evolving document that would be used to fit the needs of individual schools and school districts.

“The perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” board member Kim Pattillo Brownson said. “I think this is a good document to begin with. And California has to start this journey.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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