Newsom vetoed high school ethnic studies bill after complaints from Jewish groups about curriculum

SACRAMENTO — Jewish groups angered by their exclusion from a proposed ethnic studies curriculum for California high school students credited their concerns in large part for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of a bill requiring the course for graduation.

It was the latest twist in a fight that has lasted more than a year over whether California’s high school students should be required to take an ethnic studies class and, if so, what should be included. The bill’s author pulled it in 2019 after a similar dispute over the course material. This year a revised version of the bill easily passed the Legislature, but Wednesday night, Newsom vetoed it.

In his veto message, the governor said only that the curriculum still needed more work because it was “insufficiently balanced and inclusive.”

AB331 would have added a one-semester ethnic studies course to the high school graduation requirement, starting with the 2029-30 academic year. Newsom’s veto infuriated the bill’s supporters, who said he missed a chance to address divides laid bare by the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests over racial inequality.

Assemblyman Jose Medina, the Riverside Democrat who carried the bill, called Newsom’s veto “a failure to push back against the racial rhetoric and bullying of Donald Trump.”

Newsom wrote in his veto message that he supports the concept of teaching students about the history of marginalized groups. But he said the latest draft of California’s “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” must be rewritten to ensure it “achieves balance, fairness and is inclusive of all communities.”

Newsom didn’t cite specific examples of bias in the course manual, but advocates and legislators said the Jewish community was the crucial source of concern about the curriculum.

Then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is greeted by students during a visit to Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento in November 2017.

Then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is greeted by students during a visit to Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento in November 2017.

Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press 2017

Tyler Gregory, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, said concerns about the bill were reignited in recent weeks after Jewish leaders learned the draft curriculum had been updated to add lessons about Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders, but not Jews.

Gregory said Jewish groups and synagogues across the state sent dozens of letters to Newsom’s office urging him to intervene. Gregory said he wanted Newsom to direct an overhaul of the curriculum or veto the bill — Newsom did both.

“We think it’s imperative that education around anti-Semitism and Jewish identity be included in the context of ethnic studies,” Gregory said. “The Jewish community is more than a conversation about the Holocaust.”

However, the bill also had significant supporters in the Jewish community: Every member of the Legislative Jewish Caucus voted for it, and it was endorsed by the Anti-Defamation League.

State Sen. Ben Allen, the Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the caucus, said many who raised concerns simply wanted the curriculum to be revised, not have Newsom veto the bill outright.

“The Jewish community is a large and diverse community, with lots of different perspectives,” he said. “If anything, what I heard from the mainstream Jewish community leadership was not opposition to the bill, but was concern that the curriculum be developed in a way that was fair to the Jewish community.”

The veto reignited the debate about the purpose and nature of ethnic studies, a movement that began on Bay Area college campuses in the late 1960s.

Supporters of the curriculum argue the concept of ethnic studies isn’t intended to be a general discussion of diversity. They said the discipline is traditionally focused on people of color in America — their contributions and historic oppression.

They said they were caught off guard by Newsom’s veto and some Jewish groups’ opposition.

“I do very much think that it was a lost opportunity, given this historical moment,” Medina, a retired high school teacher who taught ethnic studies, told The Chronicle. “We’ve never seen students more hungry for the kind of knowledge that ethnic studies would provide them.”

Medina shelved the bill last year because of backlash over an earlier draft of the curriculum. Controversy appeared to have dwindled after the California Department of Education released the new draft in July.

The revised curriculum encouraged teachers to add lessons that emphasize the history of ethnic groups in their community. But it kept the focus on four groups that ethnic studies courses traditionally emphasize: African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The draft also removed content that Jewish groups said evoked anti-Semitic stereotypes, in particular a reference to Israel controlling the media.

Some critics still said the draft was politically charged and excluded historically marginalized ethnic and religious groups, such as Armenians.

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