California Department of Education headquarters in Sacramento. (Photo/California Department of Education)
California Department of Education headquarters in Sacramento. (Photo/California Department of Education)

Survey: how local school board candidates see ethnic studies

Updated Oct. 26 at 10:14 a.m.

A recent survey of candidates for local school boards across California sought their views on the teaching of ethnic studies and other contentious issues, including whether they supported the “liberated” ethnic studies curriculum that has caused concern among pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

The nine-question survey was conducted by the Bay Area-based Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, a nonprofit formed in 2020 to counter the liberated curriculum.

The curriculum was written by a California-based consortium of educators on the political far left in response to the state’s ethnic studies model curriculum. The consortium has had some success signing contracts with public school districts over the last year, and has sparred with a number of Jewish community organizations over its sharp criticism of Israel.

ACES asked candidates for their preference — “Constructive or Liberated?” — and whether they supported teaching the liberated curriculum.

Constructive” ethnic studies is a term ACES itself coined at its founding two years ago, focusing on “educating and building understanding, while tackling challenges through an analytic lens.”

S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council CEO Tye Gregory says JCRC rejects the motivation behind both labels.

“We believe those are two interest groups trying to put ideological bents on ethnic studies,” he said. “The liberated group and the constructive group are taking an ideological approach to this in ways that aren’t appropriate.”

Results of the ACES survey were shared on Oct. 11. Nine questions were sent to more than 1,600 candidates; 134 responded. Of those, just 17 said they supported teaching the liberated curriculum. (“Critical ethnic studies,” which was attached to the question, is a separate discipline, though it informs the liberated curriculum.)

In another question, the survey asked candidates about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The majority of those who responded — more than 100 candidates — said they opposed BDS, and four said they supported it (20 said they didn’t know).

There is absolutely nothing that poses as much of a threat to American Jews today as a liberated ethnic studies curriculum.

ACES, which according to its website seeks “to remove narrow ideological agendas from Ethnic Studies, enabling curricula that inspire mutual respect, fight racism, and celebrate ethnic accomplishments,” maintains that the liberated curriculum leads to instruction of antisemitic content, imposes “a narrow political ideology” and promotes a “militant, anti-Western agenda.”

Elina Kaplan
Elina Kaplan

“There is absolutely nothing that poses as much of a threat to American Jews today as a liberated ethnic studies curriculum,” Elina Kaplan, president of ACES, asserted in an interview. “I know it sounds so specific, like how could that be? But we’re talking about educating an entire generation that Jews are on the top of the privilege pyramid, and Israel is a colonial power oppressing Palestinians.”

Kaplan immigrated from the Soviet Union when she was 11 years old. Now the mother of two young adults, she lives in the Bay Area and previously worked as the chief program officer at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, among other roles. She had just left her job in executive nonprofit management when friends began sending her links to the state’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum.

“I got hooked,” she said. “I got pulled in once I started learning about this.”

Some of what is being taught in the classroom today, she said, reminds her of education under Communist rule.

“It’s horrifying to me we’re learning the same stuff I was learning in the Soviet Union in the 1970s,” she said.

Joining Kaplan among the executive leadership at ACES are several unpaid volunteers. Kaplan said they reach about 10,000 people on their mailing list.

“Most of our constituents are parents, grandparents and teachers,” she said. “Among the leadership everyone has kids, and that has definitely brought the issue home.”

ANALYSIS: ‘Liberated’ educators implement their own ethnic studies programs

The longstanding debate over ethnic studies in California began in 2016, when the Legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to develop a statewide model curriculum to teach the course in public high schools. Since then, pro-Israel and Jewish groups have fought to ensure the curriculum does not contain anti-Israel materials that could engender antisemitism.

After the 2019 release of the first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum — “written by a group of scholar-activists,” Kaplan said — Jewish community groups were disheartened that it omitted the history of Jewish Americans and maligned Israel.

Jewish groups denounced references the curriculum made to the BDS movement as well as the inclusion of antisemitic hip-hop lyrics. A yearslong revision process followed, conducted in partnership with pro-Israel and Jewish community groups, and the current version of the ESMC, while not perfect, is acceptable, JCRC leadership told J. “We got to a decent place,” Gregory said in a phone interview. “Jewish identity is included, and anti-Zionism is excluded.”

JCRC’s priority, he said, is “ensuring the Jewish American experience is included and to prevent antisemitism and anti-Zionism from creeping into this.”

“This is about communities being able to express their histories in this country on their own terms. We as a Jewish community can relate to why this is important, and we think we can benefit from being a part of this,” Gregory said. “Mizrahi Jews, Jews of color — so much about who we are we would love for K-12 kids to learn about, beyond what’s written about us in history classes, and I think these communities of color feel the same way.”

AB 101, signed into law last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, makes ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, beginning with the class of 2030. While the state has provided a framework for an ethnic studies curriculum, individual school districts have leeway to develop their own.

ACES says it undertook the survey in an effort to educate the public about school board candidates’ views of ethnic studies as it relates to curriculum. In a state driving national curricula, and where there are more than 10,000 public schools in 1,000 districts, informing the public is critical, Kaplan said.

“I was taken by the amount of interest there is among voters,” she said. “I think there’s a real hunger for information, and people want to do something about it.”

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.