California Governor Vetoes Ethnic Studies Bill
By: Mary Salome/Arab America Contributing Writer
Khalid is a high school junior in the San Francisco Bay Area. He knows a lot about Palestine through his family, but not through any lesson he’s ever had in school. While he is certainly not alone in this experience, he is also not alone in the struggle to change it. He is part of a broad coalition of California educators and activists working to include Arabs in ethnic studies curriculum, and though the effort has been stalled by the governor, the fight is not over.
“Throughout my high school education there was barely a week in which we learned Arab history in World Studies, and what we did learn was incredibly Eurocentric,” he said. In comparison with the way European history was taught, Khalid felt the lessons about Arabs lacked complexity and promoted stereotypes. “I know there’s more to us, and there are so many positive things we added to modern society around the world.” At his school, the lessons fed into the racism that filtered through the student body in the form of slurs and hatred directed at Arab students.
California Assembly Bill 331 (AB331), mandating ethnic studies as part of the state’s high school curriculum, promised positive change for students like Khalid. An advisory committee of ethnic studies educators was selected to develop the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). They included Arab American studies in their draft model curriculum. In August of this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom approved similar legislation requiring California State University first-year students to take an ethnic studies course starting in 2021.
AB331 was introduced by California Assembly Member Jose Medina, and curriculum development was in process. The bill would have ensured ethnic studies as a mandatory requirement for high school students in California starting in the 2029-30 school year.
As Arab America reported in February of this year, the effort to include Arabs in the high school curriculum got pushback from the start. Not surprisingly, the parts of the curriculum that received the most focus and attack had to do with Palestine.
In response to the Zionist attacks, the Save Arab American Studies coalition (SAAS) organized a grassroots effort to include Arabs in California’s ethnic studies curriculum. After months of community organizing, public comment, webinars, and lobbying, things looked promising for an inclusive high school curriculum. At the March public meeting on the ESMC, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond announced that Arab American studies would be included in the ESMC.
The final bill sent to the Governor included problematic “guard rail” amendments designed to strip the curriculum of critique of Israel. The amendments were introduced by Zionist groups that attacked the curriculum; the Simon Weisenthal Center, for example, called it “controversial and deeply flawed” for centering communities of color, and others claimed it was antisemitic for discussing Israeli policies toward Palestinians in the context of Arab-American immigration to the United States.
On September 20, 2020, Newsom vetoed AB331.
Samia Shoman is a long-time Bay Area educator and mom who also serves on the California Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum Committee, which drafted the original curriculum brought before the State. At the heart of this fight, she says, is maintaining the integrity of the curriculum. “The guiding principles that were drafted by the original ethnic studies educators — experts in the field not just in California, but nationally — need to remain centered. Validating Palestinian identity, recognizing it, and understanding that parts of it are rooted in and have grown out of resisting settler colonialism.”
As a youth organizer, Khalid was surprised by the attacks. “So much of the liberal rhetoric I heard in School Board meetings sounded like racists I heard in school. These are people who say they believe in liberal ideologies, and then when it comes to the most basic representation, they say we don’t deserve it because it excludes other people.” Nothing about the process surprised Dr. Shoman, however. “As a Palestinian American growing up in this country, I just see this as a microcosm of the battle to resist the erasure of Palestinians, whether it’s in this country or back home.”
The Save Arab American Studies Coalition is clear on where the blame lies for the veto. In response to the CDE’s proposal in August to include a lesson plan on Arab-American studies, the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council immediately launched a #Jews Left Out campaign. Its Executive Director, Tye Gregory, boasted to the SF Chronicle of their success in urging the Governor to veto the bill: “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.”
Both Khalid and Dr. Shoman find value in the work despite the outcome this year. Individual school districts can still offer ethnic studies, and many do. The effort itself has raised awareness and visibility. For Dr. Shoman, the coalition-building created a foundation for future work. “One thing I have enjoyed and been proud of is the allyship among various groups in really standing up for Arab Americans, and saying yes, we should be part of ethnic studies. That has been healing and generative.”
For Khalid, the experience helped create a sense that despite the veto, the future could be a more empowered place for high school students long after he graduates. “By having our voices heard in school, I feel like we set a precedent for other communities, and showed the way education should happen in schools everywhere, where it is centered around the students and student experiences.”
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