Bill to mandate ethnic studies in California high schools delayed amid controversy

Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside during session in the Assembly chamber on March 11, 2013.
Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside during session in the Assembly chamber on March 11, 2013.

As debates over which communities should be represented in California’s first ethnic studies curriculum intensify, a bill that would require that the curriculum be taught in high schools is being delayed.

Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, the author of the bill, announced Thursday that he will turn the legislation into a “two-year bill,” a method lawmakers typically use to gain time to revise a bill without killing it all together.

“It is not a question of whether the subject [of ethnic studies] itself is necessary but rather, how do we ensure the curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous, and inclusive enough,” Medina said in a statement. “This underscores the importance of taking the time necessary to ensure we get the curriculum right.”

The curriculum, which is being created through a bill signed in 2016, is currently meant to serve as a guideline for schools, which would not be required to teach it. In June, the Department of Education posted a draft of the curriculum online and opened it up for public feedback. It is now going through revisions, and while it is slated to be finalized next March, it will likely take longer to complete due to ongoing debates.

Last month, the Jewish legislative caucus sent a letter to the state Department of Education criticizing the draft curriculum of omitting discussions of anti-Semitism and presenting a skewed narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Medina, who raised his children in the Jewish faith and is an honorary member of the caucus, signed the letter.

The letter prompted a quick response from state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond, who said last week that the new draft should discuss anti-Semitism and the contributions of Jewish people.

Civic groups representing other communities — including Armenian, Hellenic, Hindu and Korean ones — have also voiced concerns that the curriculum omits their communities’ struggles when immigrating to the U.S.

At the core of the controversy is which groups’ histories and perspectives should be included in the nation’s first state-level ethnic studies curriculum, in one of the most diverse states in the country.

The draft curriculum was modeled off the traditional four areas of ethnic studies taught in higher education: Black/African American studies, Chicano/a studies, Native American studies and Asian American studies. Many groups challenging the draft are asking the state to develop a curriculum that would diverge from this model.

“If you study what the historic framework has been for ethnics studies, that has typically focused on four distinct groups,” Thurmond said last week addressing the Jewish caucus’ concerns. “There’s no intentional omission of the experiences of Jewish Americans, but, in fact, we think that there should be mention of the contributions of Jewish Americans.”

Professors who have long taught ethnic studies are concerned about the state’s curriculum drifting from ethnic studies as an academic field.

Robyn Rodriguez, chair of the Asian American studies department at UC Davis, said it appears that many groups criticizing the draft curriculum, such as Jewish, Hellenic, and Amernian groups, misunderstand the academic field by “thinking of ethnic studies as being about ethnicity.”

“Ethnic studies as a name is kind of a misnomer. What we’re really contending with is race,” she continued. Ethnic studies at its core is about “the various kinds of inequality and exploitation for non-white people of color.”

She said that while she understands the groups’ concerns about the draft not being inclusive, she thinks they are overlooking the aim of ethnic studies to focus specifically on groups that have been racially oppressed.

Some groups that have spoken up in support of the draft echoed Rodriguez, including one Jewish group.

“The purpose of the model Ethnic Studies curriculum is to center the history of people of color who have been marginalized or ignored by the current curriculum,” Jewish Voices for Peace - Bay Area said in a press release last week in support of the draft curriculum.

The release also noted that the state’s model curriculum for human rights and genocide already covers some events and perspectives that critics say are omitted in the draft ethnic studies curriculum.

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.