State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14 about the state's proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. (From left) Assemblyman Marc Berman, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Senator Ben Allen, Assemblyman Jose Medina (Photo/Facebook-Abby Porth)
State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14, 2019, about the state's high school ethnic studies curriculum. (From left) Assemblymember Marc Berman, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Sen. Ben Allen, Assemblymember Jose Medina (Photo/Facebook-Abby Porth)

‘Liberated’ educators implement their own ethnic studies programs

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After nearly two years of controversy and debate, California finally approved its model curriculum for ethnic studies in March. Following more than 80,000 public comments, the document seemed to be the result of painstaking compromise, as initiatives bound by politics often are. And though not universally adored, it is likely to survive the governor’s veto pen.

Yet, despite the time, resources, energy and angst devoted to the model curriculum, its use in schools will not be mandatory. It merely will be recommended.

The text of AB 101, a bill that will make California the first state to mandate ethnic studies instruction if it passes as expected later this year, says districts can use the ethnic studies model curriculum but can also use “an existing ethnic studies course” or a “locally developed ethnic studies course” approved by a governing school board.

With that kind of flexibility, experienced educators in the field see an opportunity to implement ethnic studies curricula of their own design, and have already begun doing so. They have established consulting firms, are organizing teacher trainings, and are working with schools to implement ethnic studies instruction completely independent of the state model.

The initiatives are being spearheaded by those who shepherded the first curriculum draft, which was criticized by Jewish groups for its omission of antisemitism and its support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Making inroads in school districts in the Bay Area and beyond, the educators reject the ESMC, often criticizing it in strong terms by calling it “whitewashed” and a bastardization of the discipline. They are making a point to include in their programs themes that were modified or stripped from the ESMC’s first draft: critiques of capitalism and imperialism, the inclusion of Arab American studies as a core discipline within ethnic studies, criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians.

Guadalupe Cardona
Guadalupe Cardona

“We’re not going to rely on that model curriculum,” stated Guadalupe Cardona during a June 24 virtual forum organized by the Pomona Education Coalition called “Reclaiming Our Narratives.” The ESMC is watered-down, she said, and “really isn’t an ethnic studies model curriculum anymore.”

Cardona is a co-founder of an organization known as the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute, referred to simply as “Liberated.” Incorporated in California earlier this year, Liberated is a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that was formed by two members of the ESMC advisory committee, Cardona and Theresa Montaño. Cardona teaches ethnic studies and other subjects with the L.A. Unified School District and Montaño is a professor in Chicana and Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge.

Liberated is working with about 70 people, including “most of” the 18 advisers and writers from the original ESMC advisory committee, according to Cardona. It offers teacher trainings and curricular development for ethnic studies instruction for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Information on Liberated’s website shows the organization strongly opposed to the revised ESMC, charging that the revisions were driven by individuals not steeped in the discipline and by “rightwing demagogues and lobbyists.”

Montaño said during the forum that the ESMC had been corrupted by “white supremacy” and “white privilege.”

Professor Theresa Montaño of CSU Northridge is one of the driving forces behind the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute.
Professor Theresa Montaño of CSU Northridge is one of the driving forces behind the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute.

Following complaints of exclusion from Jews, Sikhs, Armenians, Koreans and other groups, education officials amended the first draft by adding lessons in a section termed “Interethnic bridge-building.” Two of the lessons are on Jewish Americans.

In a sign that Liberated’s efforts are succeeding on the local level, the Hayward Unified School District board on June 23 unanimously approved an ethnic studies program using guidance from Liberated. In a press release, the district said its policy and efforts are “informed by and will include Critical Race Theory and the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.”

“It’s important that we teach our students of all ages about their ancestral legacies,” said April Oquenda, the HUSD board president. “Culture is essential in the fight for racial justice, and the district believes that the promise of the full inclusion of ethnic and cultural groups who have contributed to the development of our country has not yet been realized.”

The conflict between educators versed in the discipline of ethnic studies (which has roots in radical groups such as the Third World Liberation Front) and elected leaders, state education officials and the public (who may not sympathize with the field’s revolutionary orientation) speaks to the challenges of incorporating an ideologically charged discipline into a public school curricula alongside core courses such as English and math.

The debates echo conversations surrounding critical race theory, which most practitioners of ethnic studies use as a means of understanding how, as they see it, racism pervades American society. Critical race theory has exploded into the culture wars, consuming Fox News segments on a nightly basis as state legislatures pass laws to ban it. Some see in CRT a useful framework to critique white supremacy, while others abhor what they view as an unhealthy focus on skin color as determinative of one’s identity, or as what the writer Bari Weiss calls “neo-racism.”

In spite of such ideological fissures, the state’s ESMC and the Liberated program share many themes: a focus on the histories of racism, slavery, colonialism and white supremacy.

But the Hayward plan, formed with Liberated, is more encompassing. It argues that ethnic studies “must transform the current curricula across disciplines and grade levels.” In other words, while AB 101 would require a one-semester high school course in ethnic studies, the Hayward plan is geared toward students from pre-K to 12th grade and seeks to transform all subjects, from literature to music.

“The District [HUSD] will ensure that all district schools affirm [ethnic studies] principles by increasing literacy across all grade levels and by including principles of self-determination, humanization, critical consciousness, anti-racist perspectives, and BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] voices in the core curriculum,” the policy reads, “including, but not limited to, history, English, math, economics, civics, science, visual and performing arts, and physical education.”

It continues: “Prolonged exposure to curricula that normalizes and perpetuates white supremacy culture, colonialism, and the erasure of minority groups can be alienating and traumatic for students of color and contributes to opportunity and achievement gaps.”

The Hayward plan also assures a place for Arab American studies and “Palestinian narratives” within its curricula, which were controversial flashpoints during ESMC revisions. There is no mention of Jewish Americans, though the plan does list antisemitism as a system of oppression alongside racism, sexism, heterosexism and ageism.

Elsewhere in Northern California, following a heated board meeting on June 22, the Salinas Union High School District approved a consulting contract with R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a member of the original ESMC advisory committee and one of four editors of the 2019 book “Rethinking Ethnic Studies.”

It’s important that we teach our students of all ages about their ancestral legacies.

The contract with Cuauhtin’s organization, Our Transformation of Education, sets out a work plan to craft a professional development program for teachers, compile course reading materials and other responsibilities. Salinas will require ethnic studies for all high school students beginning this upcoming school year.

A strong critic of certain revisions to the ESMC, Cuauhtin, like all 18 of the original advisory committee members, asked that his name be stripped from the acknowledgments section of the final draft.

He has spoken out publicly against the revised draft, including last October when he spoke virtually to an ethnic studies class at Harvard; the discussion was titled, in part, “The Case of the CA Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum: Attacks from White Supremacy Culture and the 50/500+ Year Struggle of Ethnic Studies Communities.”

Cuauhtin will advise the Salinas school district for one year, according to a memorandum of understanding between them.

On the Peninsula, in February of last year, the Jefferson Elementary School District in Daly City signed a $40,000 contract for ethnic studies development with Community Responsive Education, a consulting group that advocated against revisions to the ESMC and is closely allied with the Save Arab American Studies coalition and the S.F.-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

Even while the ESMC was still being revised in spring 2020, it was clear that the drafters of the original document would be making their case directly to local school boards irrespective of the state model.

The original curriculum writers and the Save Arab American Studies coalition introduced resolutions expressing support for the original ethnic studies draft in May 2020. The resolutions passed in school districts in Oakland, Castro Valley, West Contra Costa County, Hayward, Albany and San Francisco. Those resolutions showed symbolic support for the unrevised ESMC draft.

Many school districts, including those in Oakland and San Francisco, already teach ethnic studies and are not required to alter their courses.

Some lawmakers anticipated the need to prevent biased content from creeping back into the classroom even as the ESMC was being revised. In September 2020, members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus successfully advocated for the addition of “guardrail” language in the legislation. It stated that schools, whichever curricula they ultimately use, must not “promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry or discrimination” against any person based on protected categories, including religion and nationality.

Ben Allen
Ben Allen

To state Sen. Ben Allen of the Jewish caucus, that meant the legislation would “prohibit the teaching of any curriculum that promotes bias, bigotry or discrimination, including against Jews or Israelis.”

Whether that edict will impact ethnic studies instruction on the ground remains to be seen. AB 101, which will require all high schools to offer ethnic studies by 2025, passed the state Assembly by a vote of 58-9 on May 27, and is currently being debated in the Senate.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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