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Friday, January 21, 2022

Bay Area District Doesn't Adopt California's Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum

The controversy over Ethnic Studies in California continues apace, as the Castro Valley school district (in the East Bay) voted to sign a contract with the "Liberated" ethnic studies group of educators who had been responsible for the discredited initial draft of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. When California substantially changed their draft and adopted the much-improved final draft of the curriculum, the "Liberated" contingent disavowed the project and set out on their own to independently promote their initial vision.

First things first: this is a bad decision, and the Jewish community (which spoke out against it) has the right to be upset. From one Board member's Britta Perry-like "I lived in New York!" exclamation for why he'd never vote for anything antisemitic, to the blithe dismissal of the inclusion of Jews in the framework because Ethnic Studies is "not about religion. It’s about the American experiences of those who are marginalized and displaced" (golly, what could Jews know about being marginalized and displaced) this was not a shining moment for the Castro Valley school board. There is little question that the school district's decision is going to result in a curriculum that is hostile to the Bay Area in a way that was obviously and easily avoidable.

What happened here? Some people, inexplicably,* are suggesting that Castro Valley's decision discredits the Jewish community's decision to rally in favor of the California model curriculum -- again, the curriculum Castro Valley just rejected and which the educators they hired have actively disavowed. There is something profoundly strange about having heard endless wailing from groups like ACES about how the model curriculum was barely an improvement over the "liberated" curriculum, how they were two peas in a pod, how they were basically different branches of the same tree -- and then those same groups expressing horror when a district adopts the "liberated" curriculum. I get why I'm upset, but why are they mad? I'd been arguing that there was a huge difference between the two approaches; they'd been saying they were essentially identical. Now they suddenly can understand the difference that we've been harping on for months? Welcome to the party!

In terms of what happened, well, that's actually pretty simple to answer. We already knew that the California ethnic studies bill did not alter the status quo where local school districts could choose their own curriculum, and that's what Castro Valley just did. The only failproof check against that would've been to make the model curriculum mandatory, but of course team "the model curriculum is a disaster" would never have supported that. The California Jewish Legislative Caucus claims that its amendments to the Ethnic Studies bill put up guardrails preventing groups like Liberated from implanting anti-Jewish measures into even local curriculum; we'll see if they hold up (I'll be honest in saying I don't think these guardrails are that robust).

In a circumstance where local school boards are empowered to make largely independent choices about their curricular offerings, there is always the possibility -- and arguably the inevitability -- that some will make distasteful or even bad and hurtful choices. If that risk cannot be dissipated entirely, it can be mitigated via presenting a credible "off the rack" curriculum that becomes the cheapest, path-of-least-resistance option for local boards. That doesn't mean all will adopt it -- but they're far more likely to adopt it if they know it has widespread communal support and backing. The months we spent in-fighting based on ticky-tack objections to the model curriculum didn't make the curriculum any better and didn't make it harder for local boards to make autonomous decisions -- all it did was make the model curriculum less viable as an expression of mainstream consensus support, and accordingly make alternatives comparatively more attractive.

It'd be too strong to blame the model curriculum critics for the decision by the Castro Valley board. They might have voted this way no matter what happened, and in any event they're responsible for their own choices. But there's little question that the model curriculum critics made it more likely that local boards will not adopt the model curriculum, and it cannot surprise us when groups like the "Liberated" curriculum swoop in to fill the ensuing void.

* Obviously it's entirely explicable, it'd just be rude to state the explanation out loud.

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