Several states have endeavored to create new academic programs to educate students on race and equity. This topic can be a lightning rod for criticism from both the right and the left. In my home state of Arizona we have had a long history of banning these topics in education.
We first banned ethnic studies after the passage of the horrible SB1070 law, which allowed people from my Hispanic community to be targeted and harassed by law enforcement into showing our legal documents; we recently banned critical race theory; and we are now requiring that we teach “both sides” of controversial issues.
Recently, California got it right. Our neighbor to the west went through an exhaustive process and sought feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders. It is among the first states in the nation to unveil an ethnic studies curriculum that provides important, age-appropriate lessons without opening the door to critical race theory and antisemitism.
California’s curriculum — and the process by which the state developed it — should be a model for Arizona and the rest of the nation.
In September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that requires all state-funded schools to offer at least one ethnic studies course by 2025. Ethnic studies course completion will become a graduation requirement by 2029. This curriculum went through several revisions, as many parents took issue with its characterization of Jews and Israel, among many other things.
To their credit, California officials chose to engage actively the Jewish community and solicit its input once concerns came to light. The result is a stronger, more inclusive curriculum and a better education for California students.
Ethnic studies is worth fighting for. When done correctly, teaching about these issues expands students’ horizons and raises awareness about marginalized communities. However, it is very easy to get this wrong. California’s first proposal was initially, and rightfully, met with a torrent of criticism. It included model lessons that overtly promoted antisemitism and defined Jews as members of a privileged class not worthy of inclusion in the broader field of ethnic studies.
The Jewish community was understandably upset and mobilized to voice its concerns. California officials from Governor Newsom on down engaged in good faith and made substantive improvements to expand the curriculum, adding more diverse perspectives and additional viewpoints. By the time Assembly Bill 101 was signed into law, the new curriculum included sample lessons relating to the history and culture of Black, Hispanic, Sikh, Jewish, Arab and Armenian Americans.
California’s approach should serve as a model for other states to explore how best to teach issues of race and equity in public schools. Parents and community organizations should be engaged at every stage of the process, and all voices should be heard. Policymakers should not decide some communities are more worthy of inclusion than others based on some supposed hierarchy of oppression.
We should keep a watchful eye out for antisemitism and other forms of racism as we draft model curricula and sample lessons. Most of all, we should not shy away from these topics just because they are controversial. Ethnic studies is worth it. JN
Alma Hernandez is a Jewish member of the Arizona House of Representatives, representing District 3.