Tye Gregory, executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council
Tye Gregory, executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council

Ethnic studies battle has given us insight, and resolve for the long run

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Just as we were sounding the shofar to bring in 5782, the California Legislature approved Assembly Bill 101, which would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement across our state.

The bill now sits on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, awaiting either his signature or veto before an Oct. 10 deadline — and igniting renewed community interest over the fate of ethnic studies.

As some Jewish groups petition the governor to veto AB 101, let’s break down the status of ethnic studies today, and where our community should go from here.

Our state Legislature first attempted to make ethnic studies a mandatory graduation requirement about a year ago. While the mandate bill sailed through the Legislature in late 2020, it was the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum controversy that stole the show at that time, with the Jewish community and other marginalized communities advocating for significant changes.

After intensive discussions, Gov. Newsom declared the bill flawed and premature, and vetoed it. In his veto statement, he wrote, “Last year, I expressed concern that the initial draft of the model curriculum was insufficiently balanced and inclusive and needed to be substantially amended. In my opinion, the latest draft, which is currently out for review, still needs revision.”

The veto sent a clear signal to both the California Department of Education and the Legislature that Gov. Newsom shared the Jewish community’s concerns about the discriminatory and exclusionary elements of the earlier drafts of the model curriculum entering our state’s schools.

The governor’s veto decision, combined with persistent community engagement and advocacy from the Jewish community and our allies throughout the model curriculum process, proved decisive.

Unlike last year, this year’s mandate bill sits on the governor’s desk with an approved final model curriculum in place, which, while imperfect, represents a markedly improved framework.

The curriculum lifts up ethnic studies’ founding disciplines — Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Native American studies — while meeting our community’s high-level objectives: the inclusion of Jewish American lesson plans, the exclusion of the antisemitic and anti-Israel content found in earlier drafts, the inclusion of a definition of antisemitism and “guardrails” to prevent discriminatory teachings in our classrooms.

And AB 101, unlike last year’s bill, comes with several additional protective guardrails, which the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC), and our partners and allies within and beyond the Jewish community brought to the attention of the members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus (led by chair Jesse Gabriel of the Assembly and vice chair Scott Wiener of the Senate), as well as Senate Appropriations Chair Anthony Portantino.

Their strong resolve during a difficult debate assured the inclusion of protections that, “due to concerns related to actual or perceived bias, bigotry and discrimination,” will prevent local educational agencies from using the antisemitic, anti-Israel content rejected from earlier model curriculum drafts.

AB 101 also includes protections based on nationality, in recognition of the anti-Israel bigotry being pushed by first-draft supporters.

The debate over AB 101 is also complicated by an important reality on the ground: with or without any mandate coming from Sacramento, calls are intensifying in school districts across our left-leaning Bay Area and state for the adoption of ethnic studies.

A number of key school districts on our radar have, in recent months, begun adopting, or have committed to adopt, ethnic studies courses.

A few important districts already have been teaching ethnic studies courses for years. For all of these districts, a graduation mandate would be redundant, yet the hard-fought anti-discrimination guardrails in the bill could prove to be of great value for our community relations work in the months and years ahead.

Yet even with a palatable model curriculum and multiple layers of guardrails in place, we must also recognize that local districts will still exercise a great deal of autonomy in their implementation of ethnic studies.

For these reasons, our community’s principal area of concern moving forward lies with district-level implementation.

JCRC is committed to ensuring our Jewish community organizations, working in partnership with Jewish parents, teachers and students, and allies from diverse communities, will continue to build and sustain a united front — working with school boards, superintendents, principals and educators to advocate for fair and inclusive ethnic studies district by district.

To further blunt the impact of groups peddling a problematic alternative curriculum, we will also continue to work proactively with the state’s Department of Education, school district boards and professional leadership, the state Legislature, and, of course, the governor’s office.

To use a baseball analogy, we are ahead 2-0 in the bottom of the third inning. The fate of AB 101 is merely the end of an inning in this long-term challenge. And the stakes are getting higher: States such as Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota are in various stages of their own ethnic studies processes.

For our colleagues in these states, our California Jewish community’s pioneering experiences on this issue, and the fruits of our labor, are setting a valuable precedent and set of best practices. The national Jewish community is counting on us to continue getting this right in California. And so we must.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Tyler Gregory
Tye Gregory

Tye Gregory is CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area.