Halting California’s Runaway ‘Liberated’ Ethnic Studies Train
by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
While California school districts are rushing to implement the state’s new ethnic studies “mandate,” what they do not realize is that the law requiring students to take these controversial courses faces significant funding hurdles and may well be inoperative. Those who are concerned about the rapid proliferation of antisemitic ethnic studies curricula should focus their attention on revealing this well-kept secret. Let me explain.
When California governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill mandating ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement (AB 101) in October 2021, he was explicit about why he felt confident approving a bill that was almost identical to one he had vetoed the year before. Expressing his appreciation for augmented “guardrails” added to the bill to help ensure the courses would be “free from bias and bigotry,” Newsom singled out one guardrail in particular: “[I]t is the intent of the Legislature that local educational agencies not use portions of the first draft model curriculum that were not adopted by the Instructional Quality Commission due to concerns related to bias, bigotry, and discrimination.”
The “first draft model curriculum” that he mentioned was released for public review in May 2019 and immediately rejected by Governor Newsom and the State Board of Education (SBE) after widespread complaints, and after Jewish legislators, tens of thousands of Californians, and almost every Jewish organization in the state expressed outrage over the draft’s overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist content. Although the SBE had approved a substantially revised final model curriculum in March 2021, this new guardrail signaled legislators’ concerns that local school districts, not obliged to consider the state-approved model curriculum, might instead choose the first draft’s “liberated ethnic studies” content that was vigorously marketed by the first-draft’s authors, who had gone on to establish a fee-for-service consulting group, Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium (LESMCC).
A month before legislators’ final votes were cast moving AB 101 to the Governor’s desk, LESMCC posted “Preparing to Teach Palestine: A Toolkit,” which included antisemitic tropes of Jewish wealth and power that were used to vilify Jews and Jewish organizations; smeared Israel with false charges of “settler colonialism” and “apartheid;” promoted the work of anti-Zionist organizations calling for dismantling the Jewish state and offering advice on how to launch campaigns to boycott Israel; and urged teachers to organize their schools and districts to fight “Zionist backlash.” This blatantly biased and bigoted display, even more explicitly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist than the first model curriculum draft, may well be what convinced legislators to add language to the bill expressing the intent of the Legislature that school districts not adopt discriminatory curricula.
While legislative intent is not law, legislators — and the Governor — clearly felt that stating their intentions could influence local school districts’ selection of an ethnic studies curriculum. According to Jesse Gabriel, then chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, “my hope is that the guardrails are so unambiguous that any school board, or any teacher, looks at this and says, ‘we do not want to get close to that problematic curriculum.’”
So much for hope and good intentions.
Last month, despite opposition from members of the Jewish community, the Santa Ana Unified School District’s Board of Education voted in favor of adopting two ethnic studies curricula containing egregiously anti-Israel content for use in SAUSD’s 11 high schools. Similar scenarios had already played themselves out at school board meetings in Hayward and Castro Valley, where board members ignored strenuous community objections, and approved lucrative contracts with LESMCC.
There’s growing evidence that AB 101’s guardrails will not prevent school districts from adopting antisemitic curricula or contracting with educational consulting groups that promote these curricula.
This is of particular concern, considering that in the short time since its founding, LESMCC and mission-aligned consultants, with the support of powerful teachers’ unions and the state’s ethnic studies higher education community, have not only contracted with a growing number of school districts and county offices of education, but successfully lobbied California legislators to sponsor additional bills advancing their mission.
Given LESMCC’s success record to date, within a few years many school districts across the state will undoubtedly be spoon-feeding their students a liberated-style curriculum promoting the bias, bigotry and discrimination, including antisemitism, that the guardrail language explicitly prohibited.
There is, however, a way to bring this runaway train to a halt, or at least to slow it down considerably.
Fortunately, right after the “intent” guardrail was written into AB 101, the CA Legislature slipped in an “in-case-of-fire-break-glass” amendment: these provisions will become “operative only upon an appropriation of funds by the Legislature for the purposes of these amendments in the annual Budget Act or another statute.”
In other words, unless and until legislators allocate funds to cover AB 101’s costs, which the California Department of Education anticipates will be $276 million annually, its graduation requirement is not in play.
Legislators did appropriate one-time funds “to support the creation or expansion of ethnic studies course offerings,” but that appropriation, a small fraction of AB 101’s price tag, was part of a bill signed into law more than two months before the “break-glass” clause was added to AB 101, indicating that these funds were not the ones intended by legislators to serve as the trigger for operationalizing the graduation requirement. Another law paying for AB 101 would be needed to do that.
Neither the governor nor legislators have signaled that they will fund AB 101. Given California’s enormous $31.5 billion shortfall, announced in Governor Newsom’s May 12th State Budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it is extremely doubtful that the Legislature will be able to find, let alone decide to fund, a quarter billion dollars a year for ethnic studies courses that are quite likely to teach content the Legislature has explicitly rejected.
Uncertainty about the status of the new graduation requirement puts local school districts in a bind. According to AB 101’s timetable, high schools would offer an ethnic studies course by Fall 2025. School districts are gearing up soon to be ready, each incurring tens of thousands of dollars in expenses with the hope, but not the certainty, that they will be reimbursed by the state. If the legislature doesn’t fund AB 101, districts that don’t wait to find out if the State will pay for Ethnic Studies could be left holding the bill on an expensive new course that isn’t required after all.
What does this mean for Californians who are deeply concerned about the proliferation of biased, bigoted, and discriminatory ethnic studies curricula in required high school classes? Instead of looking to the guardrails, which are ill-equipped to keep such content out of the classroom, Californians should urge their local school boards to wait until legislators decide — fund or not fund, now or ever.
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.