A Jewish student reads a statement in opposition to a resolution for a consulting contract between the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition and the Castro Valley school district. (Screenshot)
A Jewish student reads a statement in opposition to a resolution for a consulting contract between the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition and the Castro Valley school district. (Screenshot)

Castro Valley school board approves contract with ‘liberated’ ethnic studies group

The Castro Valley school board unanimously approved a contract Wednesday night with a controversial consortium of ethnic studies teachers who have expressed strong opposition to Israel and to pro-Israel Jewish organizations.

The agreement sets out a yearlong plan for teacher training and curriculum development from the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition, an educational consulting outfit that the school board called “one of the most well reputed” providers of ethnic studies training and development in the country.

“Ethnic studies is the study of the experiences, the contributions and the perspectives of racial and ethnic groups across the country,” said Jason Reimann, a Castro Valley superintendent who led the meeting and who strongly backed the agreement, for which the district will pay $82,560. “The team is comprised of ethnic studies professors, curriculum experts and, most importantly, teachers of ethnic studies — people who are experienced in actually implementing an ethnic studies program.”

Though the board’s vote was unanimous, it came against the wishes of about a dozen Jews who called into the meeting during an hourlong public comment period — including a rabbi, a synagogue president, Jewish parents and students, and a representative of the Anti-Defamation League. The controversial vote was the latest development in a long saga surrounding the teaching of ethnic studies — the multidisciplinary study of race and ethnicity focusing on people of color — in California schools.

One prominent leader in the Jewish community at the meeting called the agreement a “contract with antisemitic providers.”

Jewish organizations had lobbied successfully to remove mention of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement from the statewide ethnic studies model curriculum approved last March, and to add a discussion of antisemitism and Jews. All public high schools in California will be required to offer ethnic studies by 2025. But there is no requirement that they use the statewide model in their program.

The decision by the East Bay school district to put its ethnic studies instruction in the hands of Liberated, rather than relying on the ESMC, has shined a bright light on what critics have identified as weaknesses in California’s new ethnic studies law, the first of its kind in the country. 

The Castro Valley district is joining Hayward schools in distancing itself from the state model in favor of a plan guided by Liberated, which has a more radical orientation than the state ESMC — one that proponents say is truer to the origins of the discipline.

Liberated was spearheaded by university and high school ethnic studies educators who helped guide the first draft of the model curriculum but who rejected the edited version, calling it “watered down” and a bastardization of ethnic studies.

The proposal to sign with the consulting group raised alarms among Jewish organizations this week after it was added to the school board agenda. Chabad of Castro Valley sent a newsletter to its members urging them to attend the mostly virtual public meeting, and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council penned an open letter to Dot Theodore, the board president, urging a tabling of the resolution until it could be discussed further.

Tye Gregory
Tye Gregory

“We are concerned about the intent to sign a lengthy and sole contract with Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition (LESMC) for a number of reasons,” the JCRC letter signed by CEO Tye Gregory and senior director Karen Stiller said. “[Liberated members] have publicly disparaged the mainstream Jewish community and anyone who has a connection to, or affinity for, Israel countless times and they continue to misrepresent our views.”

The JCRC letter expressed concern that courses designed by Liberated or teachers trained by the organization would introduce biased anti-Israel content into public school classrooms — exactly the type of content Jewish organizations lobbied to remove from the statewide model.

The letter linked to a webpage called “Preparing to Teach Palestine: A Toolkit,” taken from Liberated’s website. Ostensibly a primer on how to teach students about the region, it is rife with harsh criticism of Israel and of pro-Israel Jewish organizations.

The webpage begins by warning of “Zionist backlash” to “teaching about Palestine” stating the opposition is “led, organized and financed by Zionist organizations in the United States and Israel.”

The webpage also falsely claims that Zionism “has called for the creation and expansion of Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine by any means necessary.” It calls Zionism a “nationalist, colonial ideology.”

The page also criticizes the ADL, the JCRC and the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance by stating, falsely, that “as Zionist organizations, their primary goal is to stunt the development of authentic anti-racist curriculum to ensure an Israel-friendly analysis.”

Jewish callers Wednesday expressed disgust and at times fear surrounding what they viewed as the potential for Liberated to infuse bias into public school classrooms.

“We were shocked by what they had on their own website,” Jeremy Templeton, president of Castro Valley’s Congregation Shir Ami, told the board. “They deny that Israel has a right to exist… attack Jewish groups working to fight antisemitism, and speak of quote ‘Zionist backlash,’” he said, asking members to table the resolution.

Lia, a seventh-grader who joined the meeting on Zoom, told the board “sometimes it can be hard or exhausting” being one of the few Jewish students in her school. “I honestly don’t think I could sit in a class if it felt like the teacher was teaching something inaccurate about Judaism,” she said.

“The emotion I felt when I heard about this is fear,” said Jonathan Simon, a parent of two Castro Valley students.

Three members of Jewish Voice for Peace, the anti-Zionist group, spoke in support of the agreement.

Much of the board’s stated support for approving the contract dealt broadly with the importance of ethnic studies education.

The agreement includes 10 three-hour sessions of “curriculum development” for 20 teachers, monthly sessions focusing specifically on teaching ninth-graders, training for an after-school program for sixth- and eighth-graders, and a three-hour seminar called “White Teachers and White Students in Ethnic Studies” that examines “how white teachers can engage in ethnic studies” with an understanding of their “privilege, power, and positionality.”

“We have been doing this work for a while, and it goes along with our message of ‘All Means All,’ one board member said, quoting a district motto of inclusion. “There are about 52 languages spoken in our community. We have a very diverse community that continues to diversify. And creating spaces for marginalized groups and communities of color so that we can lift everyone up, and we can create spaces for everyone, is really our goal.”

A few applauded the district’s willingness to have “difficult conversations.” Acknowledging the hostage-taking attack in Texas less than a week prior, board members stressed that the district was committed to combatting antisemitism.

“Antisemitism is real,” one board member asserted.

“Although I was born in California, I grew up in New York. I had very many Jewish friends that were very close to me,” another said. “I wouldn’t vote for anything that I thought was going to be antisemitic.”

One board member spoke more directly to whether Jews should be included in ethnic studies courses, a point of contention during the debate over the statewide model.

“I think it’s important for us to know what ethnic studies is and is not,” the board member said. “It’s not about religion. It’s about the American experiences of those who are marginalized and displaced.”

Put to a vote, the agreement was approved unanimously by all five voting board members present. The only abstention was from Jennifer, a student delegate.

“Due to my limited knowledge as a 16-year-old junior in high school, I’m going to abstain,” she said.

JCRC’s Gregory excoriated the board’s decision in a statement to J., saying the body had made “not one but two egregious mistakes.”

“First, the approval of a contract with antisemitic providers over the objections of Jewish parents and students, who expressed that the decision would make them feel unsafe as Jews in schools.

“Second, and perhaps even more alarming, the board and superintendent willfully ignored JCRC, ADL, and local congregations’ many requests for civil discourse.”

Seth Brysk
Seth Brysk

“We support a pedagogically sound course in ethnic studies,” said Seth Brysk, regional director of the ADL based in San Francisco. However, the Institute [has authored] biased content in the name of elevating marginalized communities.”

Brysk said that working with the coalition could expose students to “gratuitious anti-Israel bias” and could put the district in violation of state law, as well as the district’s own anti-discrimination policies.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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