Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking to attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, June 1, 2019. (Photo/Gage Skidmore via Wikicommons)
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking to attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, June 1, 2019. (Photo/Gage Skidmore via Wikicommons)

Newsom administration warns against bias in ethnic studies as students head back to class

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration cautioned California public school leaders Wednesday that ethnic studies classes being adopted across the state must not promote “bias, bigotry, or discrimination” against protected groups, which include Jews and Israelis.

The letter followed an advocacy campaign in recent months from Jewish organizations concerned that ethnic studies — a discipline that traces its roots to radical protest movements in the 1960s — not include anti-Israel and “anti-Jewish” content.

Newsom, a progressive Democrat who has touted California’s partnership with Israel on water conservation and toured the country in 2008, has found himself navigating a politically fraught issue in ethnic studies, which has pitted even progressives against each other since 2019.

The issue is heating up again as California students head back to class. At the center of the debate are politics surrounding Israel, questions about academic jargon and radical political views in the classroom, and even the definition of the discipline.

Newsom vetoed a bill requiring ethnic studies in 2020 because of concerns surrounding the draft curriculum’s anti-Israel content and political orientation, which critics called extreme. After the model curriculum was revised, Newsom signed the bill, known as AB 101, into law a year later.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education “on behalf of the entire Administration of Governor Newsom” encouraged the use of the revised statewide model curriculum, which was “created over years of rigorous vetting,” according to the letter signed by Brooks Allen, Newsom’s education policy adviser and the executive director of the State Board of Education.

“Vendors have begun promoting curriculum for [school districts] to use for ethnic studies courses,” the letter said. “We have been advised, however, that some vendors are offering materials that may not meet the requirements of AB 101,” particularly the requirement that materials “not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons” on the basis of a protected category like race, religion, or national origin.

“Accordingly, before any curriculum or instructional materials for ethnic studies courses are selected, we strongly encourage you to closely scrutinize them to ensure that they meet the above requirements,” the letter said.

RELATED: What should California do about antisemitism in schools? State schools chief hears from Jewish leaders

AB 101 requires California high schools to offer the course, which examines race and ethnicity with a focus on the experiences and perspective of people of color, by 2025. From a policy standpoint, the measure earned widespread support in the legislature, benefiting from research showing that ethnic studies improved educational outcomes for students of color. However, the quality of that research has since been disputed.

In 2019, a state committee of ethnic studies teachers and professors — assembled to create the curriculum — published a draft that earned the support of political activists and in certain corners of academia, but was criticized in the press including in the Los Angeles Times whose editorial board called it “jargon-filled” and “all-too-PC.”

A host of Jewish groups decried it as containing “anti-Jewish bias” — the draft was sharply critical of Israel, equated the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to American social protest movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and included a Palestinian hip-hop lyric about Israel “using the press,” which critics deemed potentially antisemitic. The curriculum did not meaningfully discuss antisemitism or the contributions of Jewish Americans.

Since then, the Anti-Defamation League, California Legislative Jewish Caucus, Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area and a host of other local, statewide and national groups have become involved. They’ve met with state lawmakers, state Department of Education officials and Newsom himself. The Department of Education has received thousands of public comments expressing concern about the curriculum, and Jewish parents have shown up at contentious school board meetings to express their views.

In an interview with J. in 2019, Newsom said the original curriculum would “never see the light of day.”

Amid the flood of criticism, the curriculum — known as the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, or ESMC — was thoroughly revised by the Education Department. References to BDS were removed, and two lessons on Jewish Americans — focusing on Jews of color — were added.

But the educators who supervised the original curriculum were outraged by those changes and others. They said that the “critical edge” of ethnic studies had been removed and that the process had been hijacked by “privileged voices,” “right-wing political lobbyists” and “conservative members of the Jewish community.”

“All mention of Palestine has been erased,” according to a statement on the website of the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, an opponent of the new version of the model curriculum. “The current ESMC is a watered-down version of multicultural United States history.”

Now, groups like the Liberated consortium, an independent educational consulting group formed by supporters of the original draft, and another private contractor called Community Responsive Education (CRE) are heading directly to school districts. Since the law requiring ethnic studies education doesn’t dictate what curriculum schools must use — it only offers a model and encourages its use — schools have independence about what version of ethnic studies they teach.

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, Jan. 2022. (Screenshot)

The Liberated consortium, which was sued last year in Los Angeles over alleged civil rights violations, has signed consulting contracts with Castro Valley, Hayward and other school districts.

CRE has contracted with Oakland (for a third grade social studies unit), Pittsburg, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (near Santa Cruz) and others.

“In the last several months, we have determined that there is greater need for statewide organizing around this work,” David Bocarsly, executive director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee, told J. on Wednesday. He said that JPAC “has always played the lead organizing role on state level advocacy” and aims “to be proactive, to make sure we see curricula across California schools that we find appropriate.”

On June 27, JPAC sent a letter to Newsom, state Attorney General Rob Bonta and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond expressing concern that Jewish communities had “discovered discriminatory content in several school districts” in recent months.

The letter, which was seen by J., was signed by more than 30 Jewish community leaders including Joy Sisisky, CEO of S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, Tye Gregory, CEO of JCRC Bay Area, and Rachel Urman, director of American Jewish Committee’s Northern California office.

Speaking to J., Bocarsly cited a controversial curriculum that had been approved in the Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County and was lambasted by the local office of the ADL.

The course is called “Ethnic Studies: World Geography.”  A course outline shows that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes up frequently. It states that students will “critique” the 1947 partition “plan by the United Nations to divide Palestine between Jewish and Palestinians [sic] areas.”

It also notes that “state sanctioned violence against Palestinians, Rwandans, and Kurds will be placed in their proper context as consequences of European imperial nation-making.” And students will be asked, “How has British Imperialism led to violent conflicts over issues of religious spaces, resources, and sovereignty in Palestine?” (The course also includes an explainer video on the “Israel-Palestine conflict” published by Vox that is an effort to present a balanced view of the conflict.)

The ADL criticized the course in May, arguing that its “essential questions are leading” and “portray the Jewish community in Israel as settler-colonizers, rather than providing proper historical context on the Jewish peoples’ ancestral connection to the land.”

“ADL is profoundly disappointed to see the inclusion of an extremely biased and one-sided view of Israel in the Santa Ana Unified School District’s (SAUSD) Ethnic Studies course curricula,” a May 5 letter to the SAUSD superintendent said. The course “presents a biased view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an inaccurate representation of the history of the region, and a narrow view of Jewish history.”

No members of the Santa Ana school board responded to J. requests for comment.

This is a major development.

CRE, meanwhile, was founded by Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, an ethnic studies educator and a staunch opponent of revisions to the statewide model. In 2021, Tintiangco-Cubales signed onto a letter urging the State Board of Education to reject the changes, saying that “Ethnic Studies guiding principles, knowledge, frameworks, pedagogies, and community histories have been compromised due to political and media pressure.”

Among the revisions opposed, according to the letter, was the inclusion of Jewish American Studies under the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) umbrella, stating that this had “no institutional history” and was rooted in “pressure from pro-apartheid Israel interest groups.”

Neither CRE nor Tintiangco-Cubales responded to a request for comment.

During a Wednesday forum on combating antisemitism, Thurmond, the state schools superintendent, assured Jewish community leaders and hundreds of attendees that his office has been keeping tabs on school districts. California, the most populous state in the U.S., enrolls nearly 6 million students in more than 10,000 public schools.

“We’ve actually sent numerous letters to school districts reminding them that there are guardrails in law, that ethnic studies should not create anything that might be antisemitic and should not harken back to any previous version of the model curriculum that was not approved,” Thurmond said, adding that if parents or anyone else hears about antisemitism in schools, “we’d like to get that phone call.”

The JCRC Bay Area applauded the Newsom administration’s latest efforts in a statement on Wednesday. During the legislative process, lawmakers inserted what they called “guardrails” into the ethnic studies law meant to block potentially biased material against Jews or Israelis from being taught — guardrails that Newsom supports.

“We appreciate the commitment that Governor Newsom and the State Board of Education have shown to ensure fair and equitable treatment for Jewish — and all students — in our K-12 public schools,” the JCRC statement said. “In the months ahead, JCRC will continue working with leadership statewide and school districts across the Bay Area on ethnic studies implementation.

The Jewish Public Affairs Committee concurred.

“This is a major development,” the Jewish Public Affairs Committee said in an emailed press release. “JPAC leads a broad coalition of Jewish organizations across the state who want to see a robust ethnic studies course taught in high schools, ensure it is free from antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and include lessons about the Jewish American experience.”

“Governor Newsom answers the call,” the release said.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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