Napa Valley Unified School District offices at the original Napa Union High School. (Photo/nvusd.k12.ca.us)
Napa Valley Unified School District offices at the original Napa Union High School. (Photo/nvusd.k12.ca.us)

Napa schools OK contract with breakaway ethnic studies group

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UPDATE: On May 9, the school district informed J. it was no longer planning to work with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition.

With school boards across California developing coursework to meet the state’s new requirement that high schools offer ethnic studies by 2025, the Napa Valley school board last month approved a contract with a controversial ethnic studies consulting group that has been criticized for its far-left politics and for leveling sharp criticisms against Israel and pro-Israel Jewish organizations.

The Napa Valley Unified School District, which oversees 27 schools attended by some 16,500 students, approved the $38,490 implementation contract with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition during its regular meeting on April 21.

One person on the seven-member board voted against the measure.

Liberated launched in 2020 during the height of the ethnic studies debate. It formed in part in opposition to the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which its founders helped craft, and which underwent significant revisions after criticism from lawmakers and pro-Israel Jewish organizations.

The California Department of Education revisions included removing reference to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; adding sample lessons on Jewish Americans; and cutting some of the academic jargon prevalent in the first version that opponents said was unwieldy.

The original drafters rejected those and other revisions, calling the draft a watered-down version of the discipline and charging it had been co-opted by “right-wing” forces and “pro-Israel lobbyists.”

So, benefiting from flexibility written into the ethnic studies law, which allows school boards to develop their own courses independent of the state model, Liberated has gone directly to school districts to try their hand with their own curriculum. The group goes beyond offering high school course materials, with lessons geared toward students as young as pre-K.

And Liberated has found success: Over the past year and a half, the group has secured more than $130,000 in ethnic studies implementation contracts from California districts, of which Napa Valley is the latest.

In January, the Castro Valley school board approved an agreement worth $82,560 for teacher training and curriculum development from Liberated, despite some complaints from members of the Jewish community. Last year, the Alameda County Office of Education contracted with the group for $9,525, according to county records, hosting a virtual session in December for school leaders implementing ethnic studies in their districts alongside representatives from Liberated. Last June, the Hayward Unified School District said its framework would be “informed by” the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. It was not clear whether Hayward had contracted with the group.

(While schools have the freedom to choose their own coursework, curricula must stay on the right side of a set of “guardrails” inserted into the ethnic studies law, such as not teaching discriminatory material.)

At a public meeting in Castro Valley on Jan. 19, a dozen or so callers articulated Jewish and pro-Israel concerns about the pending contract with Liberated. A few callers, including members of Jewish Voice for Peace, expressed support for the contract, which was approved unanimously.

Among the worries cited by opponents at the meeting was a sharp anti-Israel statement on Liberated’s website. The statement, called “Understanding Zionist backlash” and meant for teachers, said protests against “teaching about Palestine” were not “spontaneous” but “led, organized and financed by Zionist organizations.”

The statement called Israel and the U.S. “white settler states,” compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid-era South Africa and indirectly to “slavery or Jim Crow,” and attacked the ADL and the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. as opponents of “authentic anti-racist” curricula.

The page has since been deleted, but an archived version is available.

Liberated is staffed by roughly a dozen college-level, secondary and primary school teachers of ethnic studies, social studies, Black studies and other disciplines. The organization is co-led by Theresa Montaño, a full-time faculty member in ethnic studies at CSU Northridge, and Tricia Gallagher-Feurtsen, a former public elementary school teacher and former part-time faculty member at UC San Diego. Some of Liberated’s teacher trainings are conducted virtually, and some are in person.

The contracts include summer sessions for teachers on the basics of ethnic studies, and trainings on concepts such as “anti-racist pedagogy, identity, and positionality activities.” Liberated offers professional development sessions during the school year and other training based on its model curriculum, which is available on its website.

The organization has completely rejected charges of antisemitism. “Criticism of Israel’s policies of apartheid and oppression of Palestinians is not antisemitism,” the since-deleted website statement said.

Napa Valley school board president Robin Jankiewicz declined to comment and referred J. to the district’s assistant superintendent, Pat Andry-Jennings. Andry-Jennings did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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