Berman stands at the front of a room addressing an audience
Assembly member Marc Berman discusses the state high school ethnic studies curriculum at the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Bay Area lawmaker hears community concerns on ethnic studies draft

Assembly member Marc Berman volleyed with concerned audience members at the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco Monday night as the lawmaker (D-Palo Alto) strove to explain how a controversial model curriculum for a high school course in ethnic studies came to be.

The 350-page draft curriculum for ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color, has been roundly criticized by Jewish groups and others for perceived bias. It is sharply critical of Israel, expresses support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and excludes meaningful discussion of anti-Semitism. Jewish lawmakers with the California Legislative Jewish Caucus said it reflects “anti-Jewish bias.”

At the Sept. 16 event, organized by the S.F.-based American Jewish Committee, audience members asked: Who wrote the curriculum? Why does it stress “grievances,” as one questioner put it, instead of “celebrating diversity”? Why not allow students to bring their own personal histories to the classroom, instead of relying on fixed definitions of people of color? And, one person wondered, why have a course in ethnic studies at all?

“The vetting probably wasn’t as tight as it needed to be,” Berman admitted, referring to the selection process for three curriculum authors and an 18-person advisory committee tasked with preparing the draft earlier this year. “Maybe [the Department of Education] should have asked more probing questions and checked people’s backgrounds a lot more.”

Berman said he and the Jewish Caucus strongly support ethnic studies instruction, which has been shown to improve grades for students of color. But he said the draft suffers from a bias that a number of committee members, some of them outspoken BDS supporters, brought to the project.

Audio recordings of their deliberations show there was little to no objection raised to the draft’s anti-Israel content, including controversial terminology like “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe, to describe the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the likening of BDS to other social protest movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, without providing a pro-Israel counterpoint.

“We have reason to believe there was a strong, kind of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish bias among some of the writers, among some of the advisory board members,” he said.

According to Berman, the original writers will not be involved in the revision process and the committee has “been disbanded.”

“We don’t expect that any of those folks are going to be part of the process moving forward,” he said.

Moving forward, the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), the state board with oversight authority over the model, will have more control over the curriculum. It has also added a new member: Sen. Ben Allen, Democrat from Santa Monica, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

We have reason to believe there was a strong, kind of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish bias among some of the writers

Assembly Bill 2016 required that the curriculum be developed with input from ethnic studies college professors and local educators, “a majority of whom are kindergarten to grade 12 teachers,” according to the bill text. A roster of advisory committee members shows that most were high school teachers and professors, many from the Bay Area, including from San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco.

One committee member, San Mateo schools administrator Samia Shoman, who is Palestinian, has drawn scrutiny from Jewish groups before. She taught a high school course called “Teaching Palestine” that was sharply critical of Israel, and hung a Palestinian flag and a poster supportive of intifada in her classroom.

In an essay on a website where educators share resources on teaching about Palestine, Shoman criticized the expectation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be taught in a balanced way. “This is not a conflict or war of equal powers,” she wrote.

Berman was joined on the panel by Arsen Shirvanyan of the Armenian National Committee of America and Samir Kalra of the Hindu American Foundation. Both groups shared concerns about the draft.

The three curriculum writers, educators whose names have not been publicized by the Department of Education, did the “bulk” of the drafting of the model, Berman said. “They then worked over the course of six days with the advisory board to finalize [it].” The process was overseen by the advisory committee in a series of daylong meetings between February and April.

Many members of the Jewish Caucus were perplexed, and some were angry, when the draft was released for public comment in June.

“That was the first time a lot of us saw what was in this draft,” Berman said. “A lot of us immediately thought, wait wait wait, there’s a lot in here that’s wrong. It practically eliminated the Jewish Californian experience.”

After receiving thousands of public comments, lawmakers in Sacramento have acknowledged the need for more time before the curriculum is ready for schools. Last week, legislators revised the language of the 2016 bill, extending the deadline for approval to March 2021. Assembly member Jose Medina (D-Riverside), who wrote another bill to make ethnic studies mandatory, also pushed his measure back to next year to “ensure we get the curriculum right,” he said.

It is not clear whether the current draft will get scrapped and rewritten, or simply overhauled. But either way, there will be “way closer attention made to anybody being hired or appointed,” Berman said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened this time. Shame on us if it happens again.”

The will IQC meet Friday, Sept. 20 at the Department of Education building in Sacramento to discuss the draft and hear public comment beginning at 9 a.m.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.