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July 26, 2021 12:14 pm

The Tale of Two Ethnic Studies: A Case of Bait and Switch

avatar by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin


A school bus, illustrative, Photo: Reuters.

When California lawmakers approved AB 2016, a landmark bill mandating the development of an ethnic studies model curriculum for high school students, they believed that teaching ethnic studies would promote mutual understanding and respect among members of the largest and most ethnically diverse public school student body in the nation.

Little did these legislators know, however, that they had been manipulated by a small group of highly motivated activists bent on hijacking the state’s educational and legislative infrastructure for their own radical political ends – which has also come at the expense of Jewish children and the Jewish community.

The ethnic studies saga begins with the Southern California-based Union del Barrio (UdB), a self-described “independent political organization” working towards “political revolution” and “the fundamental liberation of all raza, from Chile to Alaska.” The group’s ideological platform also includes a rejection of America’s political system and capitalism, the lionizing of violent revolutionaries, and the endorsement of anti-Zionism and the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Focusing on K-12 education as a central component of its organizational mission, UdB states that its goal is to “build and maintain [an] organized raza liberation struggle within every school campus where our numbers are significant.” To that end, UdB embarked on a multi-year activist campaign to promote the teaching of “critical” ethnic studies in schools throughout the state. These classes would align with the group’s mission and worldview, and draw on “critical pedagogy” — a neo-Marxist educational philosophy whose practitioners are trained to use the educational system to advance anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political struggles.

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UdB’s campaign to promote the statewide teaching of ethnic studies began in earnest in 2013. Under the banner of “the People’s Campaign,” UdB engaged in “several months of hard work” to ensure that LA high school teacher — and committed UdB member — Jose Lara was elected to the school board of El Rancho Unified School District (ERUSD).

Within a few short months, Lara had co-written a resolution that would make ERUSD the first district in the state to require an ethnic studies class as a high school graduation requirement. Couched in benign language about “cultural awareness” with no hint of a political agenda, the resolution was approved in June 2014.

By September 2014, Lara had established the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition (ESNC), a UdB-backed group dedicated to replicating the ERUSD success in districts throughout California. And in November, following intensive campaigning by UdB activists, ESNC declared its first victory when the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a resolution making ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. That resolution, too, contained no hint of the political goals of the activists promoting it.

By early 2015, Lara’s efforts to advance UdB’s political agenda turned toward the state legislature. Working with then-Assembly Member Luis Alejo, Lara’s ESNC lobbied tirelessly for the precursor of AB 2016, which also directed the development of a model ethnic studies curriculum for use in all California high schools. After that bill failed to pass muster with the Governor, ESNC’s own Coordinator of Curricular Integrity, R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, worked closely with Rep. Alejo’s office to re-work the bill, even identifying himself in a resume subsequently submitted to the State Board of Education as “lead writer” of AB 2016.

Much like the school board resolutions establishing ethnic studies graduation requirements in El Rancho and Los Angeles, the text of AB 2016 gave no hint of the ideological motivation of its lead drafter. Rather, noting that “92 languages other than English [are] spoken throughout the state,” the bill highlighted the goal of “preparing pupils to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.”

Indeed, it was undoubtedly the bill’s non-partisan embrace of California’s robust ethnic diversity that led to its being overwhelmingly approved by state legislators, and signed into law by the governor in September 2016.

In Fall 2017, Jose Lara was appointed by the State Board of Education (SBE) to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), which AB 2016 had tasked with overseeing the development of the ethnic studies model curriculum (ESMC).

In accordance with the law, the IQC’s first step was the appointment of a Model Curriculum Advisory Committee (MCAC) made up of K-12 teachers and university professors with experience teaching ethnic studies, to help with drafting the curriculum. In November 2018, the IQC selected 18 individuals to serve on the committee — 13 of them recommended by Lara, including the committee’s two co-chairs, one of whom was ESNC’s Cuauhtin — the “lead writer” of AB 2016.

However, in sharp contrast to the culturally inclusive, non-political model curriculum prescribed by AB 2016, the draft developed by the MCAC, under Cuauhtin’s leadership, was steeped in critical pedagogy and promoted ideologies and activism wholly consistent with UdB’s political program.

The original draft focused on only a handful of groups, equated capitalism with racism, lionized “revolutionary” warriors, and advocated for student engagement in “tactics of resistance.”

Sample lessons also included the antisemitic portrayal of Jews controlling the media, a singling out of the Jewish state for condemnation and opprobrium, and a glossary that spoke glowingly of BDS as a “global social movement … to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”

Not surprisingly, the original draft, released for public comment in June 2019, met with enormous outrage from the Jewish community.  Twenty thousand individuals and virtually every Jewish organization in the state decried the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist bias of the draft.

The 16 members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus vigorously opposed the curriculum, rightly arguing it would “marginalize Jewish students and fuel hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community.”

Governor Newsom concurred, calling the draft “offensive in so many ways,” and vowing it would “never see the light of day.” In August, SBE President Linda Darling-Hammond also agreed, saying that the draft model curriculum “falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned” and that a new draft would be developed for SBE’s review and approval.

Furious at the rejection of their curriculum, Cuauhtin and fellow members of the disbanded MCAC went into high gear.

In September 2019, Cuauhtin and Lupe Carrasco Cardona, who identifies herself as “a proud member of the socialist political organization Union del Barrio” and of the coordinating committee for Lara’s ESNC, and who was successfully championed by Lara for a seat on the MCAC, launched the activist group “Save CA Ethnic Studies.”

The group’s first initiative was to widely promote a petition falsely characterizing criticism of the original draft — a not-so-veiled allusion to the Jewish community’s outrage over the draft’s antisemitism — as an attack on “communities of color” tantamount to “institutional racism,” and demanding that the SBE keep the original draft with few if any revisions.

The first signatory to the petition was the “AB 2016 California ethnic studies Model Advisory Committee,” with the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition and Union del Barrio not far behind.

Later organizational signatories included the two major teachers unions in the state — California Teachers Association and United Teachers Los Angeles — as well as the California State University Council on Ethnic Studies, representing Ethnic Studies departments on all CSU campuses, and 23 Ethnic Studies departments and teacher training programs across the University of California.

In Spring 2020, when the state’s top education and government officials were turning their full attention to the unprecedented educational crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Save CA Ethnic Studies launched a campaign to peddle their rejected, antisemitic curriculum directly to individual district school boards throughout the state.

Board members were asked to vote on a resolution that affirmed support for the first draft of the model curriculum and were often not shown the original draft curriculum, informed of the enormous outpouring of criticism it had engendered, or made aware that a CDE-process was well underway for redesigning it.

By that Fall, at least 20 school boards had been duped into adopting the resolution and offering support for the antisemitic curriculum.

Complementing these efforts and pushing the envelope even further, in mid-2020, former MCAC members Cardona and Theresa Montano, professor of Chicano Studies at CSU Northridge, launched the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute (LESMC), whose affiliates include several MCAC members and both co-chairs.

In an August webinar announcing their new organization and in several webinars since, Cardona and Montano have made clear that the goal of their group is to further promote the “critical” focus and elements of the rejected first draft of the ESMC – including its anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist lessons — as well as to offer school districts their educational expertise in implementing the “liberated” curriculum in their schools.

The LESMC co-founders have also used these online opportunities to denigrate their Jewish critics with classic antisemitic tropes. For instance, in one podcast promoting LESMC, Montano attacked the “very rich, very wealthy, very well-connected segment of the [Jewish] community that pushed back on the curriculum. … It taught us that white privilege and white racism in the State of California is alive and well.”

As LESMC’s co-founders were announcing their new organization, the state of California was finalizing a second draft curriculum, with a third released for public comment in December, and a fourth and final draft approved by the State Board of Education in March 2021. While each successive draft mitigated charges of antisemitism by deleting or de-emphasizing some material and lessons and adding others, the basic curricular framework remained firmly rooted in “critical” ethnic studies, with the revised documents’ guiding principles embodying the same spirit and most of the same language of the original antisemitic draft.

Even so, the original model curriculum drafters weren’t satisfied. In a letter to the SBE demanding that their names be removed from the final draft of the ESMC , they charged, “Ethnic studies’ guiding principles, knowledge, frameworks, pedagogies and community histories have been compromised due to political and media pressure” — another not-so-veiled allusion to the Jewish community’s efforts to keep antisemitic lessons out of the ESMC.

Meanwhile, the revival of a state bill that would make a course in ethnic studies a graduation requirement in every California public and charter high school raises the stakes of the curriculum debate enormously.

Although the bill, AB 101, recommends that high schools base their required ethnic studies courses on the state-approved model curriculum, it also allows individual school districts to use curricula “approved by the governing board of the school district.” AB 101’s passage will mean victory for the UdB warriors and their fellow travelers, who, with the full support of the teachers unions and higher education establishment, will be able to openly hawk their antisemitic “critical” curriculum and educational expertise to a thousand gullible school districts desperate for help in meeting their new legal obligations.

Underscoring how far this small group of unscrupulous activists has come, a video produced by the California Assembly Democrats to promote AB 101, prominently displayed on the website of the bill’s author, features the original UdB warrior, Jose Lara, singing the praises of ethnic studies – but conveniently neglecting to mention the radical political goals and antisemitic animus of its most passionate promoters.

Unfortunately, the victory of this small group of activists in their effort to successfully manipulate the state’s educational and legislative infrastructure for their own political ends is California’s tragic loss. Considered against the backdrop of their efforts, the passage of AB 101 will spell disaster for California’s Jewish students and the Jewish community.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

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