Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Flickr-Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Flickr-Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lawmakers approve revised ethnic studies bill — now Newsom must decide again

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A landmark bill to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement in California cleared both houses of the Legislature on Wednesday. The measure would make the state the first in the nation to require the course, which examines race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color.

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in the coming weeks will again have to decide if the legislation and its accompanying Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum passes muster. Newsom vetoed a similar measure in the waning hours of the legislative session last year as the model was still undergoing revisions. He wrote in a veto message that there remained “much uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum.”

The model is expected to be used as a blueprint in schools across the state, but while California “encourages” its use, the legislation also allows school districts to use already existing curricula or, if they choose, to adopt a “locally developed” course approved by the school board.

The July 2019 release of the first draft of the textbook-length curriculum, which is now over 900 pages, sparked widespread and at times bitter controversy after many complained it was too left-wing, jargon-heavy or indoctrinating. Supporters of the draft saw it as true to the spirit of ethnic studies, which was born out of transformational 1960s anti-war and anti-racist protest movements.

Jewish groups, including the liberal California Legislative Jewish Caucus, whose members support ethnic studies instruction for high schoolers, nevertheless criticized the original model unsparingly, alleging it carried an “anti-Jewish bias” because it painted Israel in a negative light, barely mentioned antisemitism and included a rap lyric that they said contained an antisemitic trope. Assembly member Jose Medina, the author of the bill to mandate ethnic studies and a staunch supporter of the discipline, also signed the letter condemning the draft (Medina is one of a handful of non-Jewish members of the Jewish Caucus). Newsom said it would “never see the light of day.”

After being inundated with more than 80,000 public comments — a plurality of which complained about the draft’s treatment of Jews and Israel — the California Department of Education revised the model. It now includes two lessons on Jewish Americans, discusses antisemitism more thoroughly and does not endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, nor mention it.

The revisions satisfied some Jewish organizations, including the Jewish caucus and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council; others, however, remain fiercely opposed to the bill. In a statement Thursday, the antisemitism watchdog organization the Amcha Initiative denounced its passage and urged Newsom to veto it, arguing it does not do nearly enough to prevent “overtly antisemitic” and anti-Zionist content from being taught in classrooms.

In a joint statement Wednesday, the Jewish caucus expressed its “sincere hope” that the ethnic studies mandate would benefit students across the state.

“This legislation enjoys broad support in the Legislature and is a top priority for our allies in the Latino, Black, Asian Pacific Islander (API), and Native American Legislative Caucuses,” the statement said. “It is our sincere hope that this course will provide an opportunity for young Californians to deepen their understanding of our society’s complex history when it comes to issues of race and diversity.”

The Jewish caucus pointed to what it calls “guardrail” language it helped insert into the legislation, something it hopes will ease the worries of Jewish groups. The language prohibits discrimination in ethnic studies courses based on religion and nationality — including discrimination against Israelis — and it prohibits the use of the original, highly controversial 2019 draft.

Whether the guardrails will have marked effects in California classrooms remains to be seen. Even as the state model was being revised, a handful of the original drafters of the 2019 ESMC — who identify strongly with the discipline’s radical roots — began working directly with school districts to implement ethnic studies courses independent of the statewide version.

Seeming to acknowledge these challenges, the caucus said while it was “pleased” that the legislation “includes explicit guardrails to protect our community … our work is far from complete.”

“In the coming months, the Jewish Caucus will continue to remain actively engaged to ensure that the teaching of ethnic studies is free from any anti-Jewish bias or discrimination and adheres to the highest educational standards,” the statement said.

The legislation passed the Assembly by a vote of 59-12, and was greenlit in the Senate 29-8. The vote record can be found here. The last day for the governor to sign or veto bills this legislative session is Oct. 10.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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