The author of legislation that would require students to take an ethnic studies course as a requirement for high school graduation has put off a vote on the bill this year amid widespread criticism of a proposed curriculum that would serve as a guide for school districts statewide.
“It is not a question of whether the subject itself is necessary, but rather, how do we ensure the curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous and inclusive enough,” Assemblyman José Medina, D-Riverside, said in a statement on Aug. 23. “This underscores the importance of taking the time necessary to ensure we get the curriculum right.”
Medina said that he would bring back Assembly Bill 331 next year for a vote and also would support extending the March deadline for the State Board of Education to approve a model curriculum for ethnic studies for use in the classroom next fall. Medina’s course requirement would first apply to the graduating class of 2025, although Medina said he might push that back a year.
The proposed curriculum written by a 20-member committee of California high school ethnic studies teachers and college experts set off a firestorm of criticism from those who said the 350-page document was politically biased and omitted the American experiences of Jews, Koreans and other ethnic and religious groups.
Last week, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond agreed with the criticism and said there would be significant changes to the curriculum.
“A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all,” Darling-Hammond wrote in a short statement, which was co-signed by board Vice President Ilene Straus and board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon. “The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”
Medina, who taught history and ethnic studies for three decades at Poly High in the Riverside Unified School District, defended ethnic studies and his bill in his statement. “I strongly believe in the tenets of Ethnic Studies and continue to assert that it is time for California to make the subject a requirement for all students,” he said.
But in an interview, he said he too had concerns with the draft when he initially looked it over. “The academic jargon jumped out at me. I heard from Jewish groups and I wrote a letter myself” that the curriculum should be broader and include European immigration, he said. Medina’s former wife is Jewish and they have raised their children as Jews. He is also a member of the Legislative Jewish caucus.
The draft curriculum drew more than 5,000 comments, mostly critical, to the California Department of Education website. Jewish groups in particular objected to the omission of anti-Semitism, which the caucus called “alarming” in a letter.
In response to the criticism, teachers of ethnic studies and groups that include the Association of Raza Educators – California and the League of United Latin American Citizens – California have rallied to its defense and expressed worry about an overreaction to the draft.
In an Aug. 14 letter to Medina and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, professor Kenneth Monteiro, who chairs California State University’s Ethnic Studies Council, said that ethnic studies courses should continue to focus on four groups that have been ignored and marginalized: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. “Ethnic Studies is the discipline that grew out of the, yes admittedly, political and academic context to decenter White Studies, White Supremacy and the privileged White narrative of the American experience,” he wrote.
“I am afraid the baby might be thrown out with bathwater; the loss would be the fidelity to the field of ethnic studies,” Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge and a member of the advisory committee that wrote the ethnic studies curriculum, said in an interview.
Montaño said that given more time, the committee could have addressed some of the objections that have subsequently been raised. At the same time, she said, “I am also concerned there is a general misunderstanding of what ethnic studies is and its importance in interpreting race in America and telling stories of people of color.”
“I hope we are able to have a conversation together; a lot of education needs to go on by both sides,” she said. The committee that drafted the curriculum “had practitioner experts, including ethnic studies teachers whose programs had great results for all students. They’ve been disrespected in this process.”
Under a tight timetable set by the Legislature, the draft curriculum now goes to the Instructional Quality Commission, which advises the state board on curriculum issues. In November, it will send proposed changes to the board, which must adopt a model curriculum by March 31, unless the timetable is pushed back.