California’s effort to write the nation’s first ethnic studies curriculum for public schools has united liberals and conservatives: They think it’s terrible.
Jewish lawmakers complained that the proposed lessons are anti-Semitic, while a conservative critic says capitalism is presented as a “form of power and oppression.” The clash comes as a law requires the state to adopt ethnic studies, which view history through the lens of diverse cultures.
State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said Wednesday that he will recommend changes to better reflect the contributions of Jewish Americans and remove sections that the California Legislative Jewish Caucus finds objectionable.
“We really need some significant changes, if not to go back to square one,” said Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, the caucus chairman. “Our concern is that the draft curriculum, as currently written, would literally institutionalize the teaching of anti-Semitic stereotypes in our public schools.”
For instance, the proposed curriculum has lessons on identifying Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination but does not include ways to identify anti-Semitism. Song lyrics included in the draft also seem to support the stereotype that Jews control the news media, the caucus said.
“It would be a cruel irony if a curriculum meant to help alleviate prejudice and bigotry were to instead marginalize Jewish students and fuel hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community,” the 14 caucus members said in a recent letter.
Jewish lawmakers said that’s a particular danger following a rise in hate crimes against California Jews last year and recent attacks on synagogues, including one in April. A 19-year-old gunman told investigators he was motivated by Jewish hatred when he killed a woman and wounded two other people, including a rabbi, at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego.
“Children are not born as bigots, and so it’s critically important that we get this curriculum right,” said Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara.
State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said the omission of Jewish contributions was not intentional but that ethnic studies traditionally have focused on African Americans, Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islanders and indigenous people.
He and Jewish lawmakers said there have been other requests to include Hindus and a section on the Armenian genocide. Allen suggested that white Europeans might learn empathy for immigrants today if there were a section on the discrimination that Italian and Irish nationals once faced in the U.S.
“There’s no limit on groups who have experienced oppression,” Thurmond said.
In 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a law requiring the state to adopt an ethnic studies curriculum by March 31, 2020. Thurmond said he is likely to ask lawmakers to extend the deadline.
Earlier this year, state officials completed a draft of the curriculum written by a panel of mostly classroom teachers.
The proposed curriculum went to a Board of Education advisory commission in May, and it’s seeking public comments through Thursday. Commission members will consider the comments and changes at public hearings in Sacramento next month.
Board leaders said in statement that the curriculum “should be accurate (and) free of bias,” acknowledging that “the current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”
The law doesn’t require schools to adopt the final version, but legislation approved by the state Assembly and awaiting a vote in the Senate would make the course a requirement to graduate from high school.
Aside from the Jewish lawmakers’ concerns, conservative researcher Williamson Evers said California wants to teach kids that capitalism is racist.
Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former assistant education secretary under former President George W. Bush, said in a Wall Street Journal opinion column that the draft includes capitalism as a “form of power and oppression” in an apparently “left wing” approach to the classroom.
Thurmond said he wasn’t offering changes to address that criticism. Democratic Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of Encino, vice chairman of the Jewish caucus, said that too needs to be fixed because it reflects a “fundamentally flawed curriculum” that “feels a lot more like indoctrination.”
“We know that it’s very personal. History is very personal, ethnic studies is very personal, so we know and understand that this is difficult,” said Stephanie Gregson, director of the curriculum division at the state education department.
Gregson called Evers’ criticisms a mischaracterization that’s taken “out of context.”
But she said the department is planning changes after recognizing that the draft curriculum does not meet state guidelines of inclusivity and “creating space for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, class or gender.”