Legislators struggle with how to rein in but not repress ethnic studies

Rick Zbur

Assemblymember Rick Zbur responds to senators’ questions during a July 3 hearing on Assembly Bill 2918.

Credit: Senate Education Committee

Legislation authored by members of the Jewish Legislation Caucus to prevent antisemitism and prejudice from seeping into ethnic studies courses passed its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.

However, Assembly Bill 2918 faces a hot summer of intense negotiations to persuade legislators who agree with its intent but question whether the bill’s restrictions and lack of clarity could lead to avoidable conflicts. 

Assembly Members Rick Zbur, D-Los Angeles, and Dawn Addis, D-Morro Bay, the bill’s chief authors, told the Senate Education Committee they and key education groups are willing to put in the time to fix it.

“While we actually have issues now that are affecting the climate in schools for Jewish students, this affects all communities that are subject to bias and discrimination,” said Assemblymember Rick Zbur, D-Los Angeles, a primary co-author. “We have to get this right for everyone, no matter what your background is. We need to make sure that this is right for all.”

But what supporters see as critical transparency, opponents see as interference. 

The bill’s requirements “will expose districts to increased harassment and litigation. The lack of clarity in defining what curriculum and instruction materials are will leave our teachers vulnerable to unwarranted scrutiny,” said Teresa Montaño, a former Los Angeles Unified teacher who now teaches Chicano studies at CSU Northridge. 

The bill would strengthen disclosure requirements for approving ethnic studies courses and materials. The 2021 law establishing an ethnic studies mandate – that all high schools offer a course in 2025-26 and make it a graduation requirement in 2030-31 – requires districts to hold two hearings before adopting an ethnic studies course. The law also includes a broad warning that the instruction must be free of “any bias, bigotry, or discrimination.”

But those provisions have proven ineffective, Zbur and others said. Parents have complained they had no idea what their children were being taught; school board members said they were unaware of what was in a course they approved, sometimes on a consent calendar with no discussion.

The bill, which has the support of State Superintendent of Instruction Tony Thurmond, would require:

  • A committee, including classroom teachers, as a majority, and parents, would formally review instructional materials and a locally developed ethnic studies course.
  • The governing board of a district or charter school would determine that the course doesn’t promote any bias, bigotry, or discrimination and explain why they declined to adopt a course based on the ethnic studies model curriculum that the state board adopted in 2018;
  • Parents would be sent a written notice before a course is presented for approval.

At the suggestion of staff, Zbur and co-author Assemblymember Dawn Addis, D-Morro Bay, agreed not to apply the bill to already approved courses and not to require school board members to certify with the State Department of Education that the course is factually and historically accurate.

Tensions over the content of ethnic studies courses have simmered since a protracted  process by the State Board from 2028 to 2021 to adopt a voluntary ethnic studies course framework. Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Board President Linda Darling-Hammond, and Thurmond criticized the first draft of the framework, written primarily by ethnic studies experts and faculty members, as ideological and biased. 

After the state board adopted a substantially changed framework in 2021, the first draft’s authors disavowed the final version and formed the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies. Its member organizations have contracted with districts to buy their versions of ethnic studies, which stress the challenges of white supremacy and an oppressive capitalist system,  and solidarity with Palestine’s battle for liberation. 

As Montaño said during a webinar on ethnic studies last year, “I have no choice but to challenge settler colonialism everywhere and to acknowledge that from the very beginning, our disciplines of ethnic studies were aligned to the global struggles in Africa, Palestine and Latin America.”

In the past year, without mentioning the Liberated Ethnic Studies coalition by name, both Attorney General Rob Bonta and the Newsom administration have reminded school districts to adhere to the law’s prohibition of discrimination.

“Vendors have begun promoting curriculum for (districts) to use for ethnic studies courses. We have been advised, however, that some vendors are offering materials that may not meet the requirements of AB 101, particularly the requirement (against bias and bigotry), an important guardrail highlighted when the bill was signed,” Brooks Allen, a Newsom adviser and executive director of the state board, wrote in August 2023.

Conflicts have flared up in the past year. Jewish parents in Palo Alto have complained they’ve been left in the dark about the development of an ethnic studies curriculum that will be piloted this fall. Opponents are protesting the board of Pajaro Valley Unified’s second thoughts about renewing a contract with a liberated ethnic studies contractor.

Tension has further escalated in reaction to the massacre of 1,200 Israelis by Hamas in October and the subsequent invasion and occupation of Gaza by Israelis, causing tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths. The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education is investigating charges that Berkeley Unified failed to respond properly to rising incidents of antisemitism in its schools. 

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, said his concerns about bias when the ethnic studies law was adopted have come true. “Now we see in practice, particularly for those of us in the Jewish community, how, in my view, bad actors have hijacked the process to promote a curriculum that does the opposite of what the goals that we had established,” he said during the discussion on the bill.

However, more than a dozen ethnic studies teachers and parents, including several Jewish parents opposed to the Israeli military’s invasion of Gaza, disagreed, saying at that hearing that they opposed the bill.

Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, said he was troubled by ambiguities in the bill and the possibility that the strength of ethnic studies could be weakened. “Everything in my core being is telling me that as it’s currently put together, (the bill) is actually going to have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the intensity of disputes at the local level,” he said.

Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, the committee chair, said he shared Cortese’s concern that ethnic studies could “get unproductively caught up in controversies over whose version of history should be taught in our schools.” 

“It’s fair to worry about the consequences, absent clarity in the bill, of organizations and individuals without teaching experience involved in developing high school courses,” he said.

“I think it’s important that the bill move forward. It’s an important discussion,” he added. Encouraging Zbur and Addis to work through unresolved issues with the Latino Caucus and others, he joined the majority in passing the bill, with Cortese dissenting.


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