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Newsom urges Calif. educators teaching ethnic studies to avoid ‘bias, bigotry or discrimination’

A new letter from the governor’s office to state educators on Wednesday follows a call from Jewish leaders pressing Gov. Gavin Newsom to push back against what they deem as discriminatory content in schools

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies

California Gov. Gavin Newsom attends the United Nations Climate Action: Race to Zero and Resilience Forum Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies on September 21, 2022, in New York City.

Days into the new school year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office on Wednesday sent a letter to educators cautioning school administrators against using ethnic studies courses that promote bias and bigotry.

The letter came in response to a plea from three dozen California Jewish leaders, who wrote to Newsom in June calling on him to push back against what they deem as discriminatory content being taught in schools. The Jewish community advocates expressed concern that some school districts were approving the teaching of ethnic studies courses that promote anti-Israel ideals and espouse antisemitism. 

“We have been advised,” Brooks Allen, education policy advisor to Newsom and executive director of the California State Board of Education, wrote on Wednesday, “that some vendors are offering [ethnic studies] materials that may not meet the requirements” of the 2021 legislation.

Administrators should “closely scrutinize” instructional materials for ethnic studies courses “to ensure that they meet the above requirements,” Allen wrote, pointing specifically to the requirement that the courses “not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry or discrimination.” He called that rule “an important guardrail.” 

The Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, the umbrella lobbying organization for the state’s Jewish communities, called the letter a “major development” in a Wednesday statement.

The letter follows a lengthy battle over a statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high school students, early drafts of which included praise for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and did not teach about antisemitism. When Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation approving the ethnic studies requirement for high schoolers, the draft curriculum included in the bill had been shaped with input from Jewish leaders in California. 

But instead of using the approved model curriculum, a handful of California school districts have opted to work with vendors promoting the original ethnic studies curriculum, or other versions viewed as problematic by Jewish leaders. Some of those educators refer to their version as “liberated ethnic studies.”

“We’ve actually sent numerous letters to school districts reminding them that there are current rules 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,” California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said Wednesday on a webinar sponsored by the state department of education. 

Rachel Lerman, the general counsel and vice chair at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, said the letter offers “another tool in our arsenal” to respond to schools whose ethnic studies courses feature antisemitic material.

“It’s good that the governor is recognizing the problems that we’ve been monitoring and reporting to him,” said Lerman.

The Wednesday letter notes that the model curriculum includes lesson plans “on many communities,” including the Jewish American community. However, it does not explicitly reference antisemitism. 

“Would we have liked more Jewish-specific messaging in there? Sure,” said Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council. “When the liberated ethnic studies supporters are saying one thing, and then the Jewish community is pointing and saying another thing, [school districts] feel caught in the middle. And so I think the tone is kind of meant to rise above a tit-for-tat that is really confusing for districts to process.”

The ethnic studies letter was unveiled as part of a package of ant-hate measures taken by Newsom. The actions also included funding for anti-hate programs, including grants to the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and Jewish Family Service of San Diego, and a statewide anti-hate media campaign.

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