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Ethnic Studies in Public Education

Ethnic Studies in California High Schools: Background

In 2021, the California State Board of Education adopted an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) and Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 101 into law, mandating Ethnic Studies as a high school graduation requirement by the 2029-2030 school year. Ethnic Studies teaches the history, culture, and narratives of African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Asian American Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans from first-person perspectives. The ESMC also includes the study of other marginalized groups, including Jewish Americans. 

Studies show that Ethnic Studies coursework boosts achievement for students of all races and ethnic backgrounds. According to the ESMC, “By affirming the identities and contributions of marginalized groups in our society, Ethnic Studies helps students see themselves and each other as part of the narrative of the United States. This helps students see themselves as active agents in the interethnic bridge-building process we call American life (ESMC p. 8).” 

As background, in 2016 California passed legislation requiring the State Board of Education to adopt an ESMC for high school students. The first draft of the ESMC, introduced in August 2019, did not reflect the American Jewish experience. Even more troubling, it included antisemitic content and anti-Israel narratives. As a result, JFedLA, through Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, its coalition of 32 California Jewish organizations, as well as our partners in the Legislative Jewish Caucus, led a coordinated strategy to ensure that Ethnic Studies curriculum does not include antisemitic or anti-Israel content and properly includes Jewish narratives. Our strategy was successful. After intensive advocacy work, the final draft of the ESMC, introduced in March 2021, excludes discriminatory content and includes two lesson plans on Jewish Americans. 

Outreach to Educators  

Historically, textbooks have excluded broad minority experiences. For decades, African American, Chicano and Latino, Asian American Pacific Islander, and Native American communities have pushed for greater and more accurate inclusion. Ethnic Studies is a critical discipline for understanding their experiences, as Holocaust education is for understanding ours. JFedLA supports the use of the ESMC and Jewish inclusion in public education. We are committed to ensuring that Ethnic Studies curricula, resources, and materials are free of hate and anti-Israel bias. 

We have a team of education professionals working to develop and sustain meaningful relationships with teachers, school district leaders, elected school board officials, and other education leaders to teach them about Israel and the Jewish community’s history, culture, and values, and to advance our sense of belonging in public schools. 

JFedLA is a trusted resource for educators who seek an understanding of our community – including our diversity, our holidays, our connection to Israel, and how we are affected by the rising rates of antisemitism. 

Ethnic Studies coursework is currently being developed in all school districts throughout the state. To support teachers of Ethnic Studies, we have built an educational resource website offering a wide range of vetted curriculum materials, in collaboration with a diverse group of resource partners. The website offers grant funding for teachers of Ethnic Studies. Rooted in our Jewish values of education, social justice, loving thy neighbor as thyself, and communal responsibility, this endeavor is meant to uplift the stories of all marginalized Americans and ensure that the Jewish narrative is properly included in Ethnic Studies. 

To further tell our story, JFedLA provides firsthand educational opportunities, trainings, and resources about Jewish-Americans, Judaism, and Israel to educators of all racial, religious, and ethnic groups and from all sectors of the city and county. Ethnic Studies teachers are also invited to join our Holy Land Democracy Project, a program that brings secondary school teachers on a life-changing trip to Israel. 

The Impact of Our Advocacy Work

  • See this piece coauthored by JFEDLA’s President & CEO, Rabbi Noah Farkas, on embracing ethnic studies while working to ensure that it is free of antisemitic content. 
  • See the text of the legislation that mandates Ethnic Studies as a public high school graduation requirement, with the guardrails highlighted. 
  • California Governor Gavin Newsom released a letter highlighting the guardrails within the law to ensure that Ethnic Studies will be free of bias and bigotry. 
  • The California Department of Education’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) is a guide for schools when developing an Ethnic Studies curriculum.
  • Check out the ESMC’s sample lesson about Jewish Americans, written by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA). 
  • Check out the ESMC’s second sample lesson about Jewish Americans, written by the Institute for Curriculum Services. 
  • California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Education Policy Advisor’s letter to all school district superintendents, warning school districts not to hire vendors who promote curriculum that includes bias, bigotry, or discrimination.  
  • The Jewish Caucus shared this letter with all fellow members of the California Legislature emphasizing concerns about dangerous, antisemitic rhetoric and incidents at the K12 and university levels.  
  • See this legal alert issued by the CA Attorney General emphasizing that Ethnic Studies curricula does “not reflect or promote bias, bigotry, or discrimination.” 
  • Watch this webinar on the importance of Ethnic Studies and this webinar on the California Department of Education’s commitment to education that counters antisemitism.