California doubles down on inclusive education as red states ban books in classrooms
As books tackling racial and LGBTQ+ themes have been banned across the country, California’s Department of Education and Democratic lawmakers are doubling down on offering diverse and inclusive lessons in schools.
Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and legislators, meeting for the first time Wednesday as part of a new task force, called on textbook publishers to commit to producing materials that are “free from discrimination and inclusive of the diverse narratives that reflect the student body of California.”
Members of the task force, all of whom are Democrats, said that includes instruction about the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as well as Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian American and Pacific Islander histories.
Nearly 77% of public school students in California are people of color, according to state data.
Although California is considered a leader in inclusive education, and already has extensive curriculum standards in place requiring diversity in school lessons, the first-of-its-kind hearing was a symbolic show of force by Democrats who control the state Capitol as GOP-controlled states including Florida and Texas have approved legislation to curtail some teachings.
“The conversation today is not simply a reaction to what’s happening in our country. It is a commitment on behalf of the state of California. ... This is a commitment that we had 10 years ago and that we have today and that we will have in another 10 years,” said Sen. Monique Limón (D-Goleta). “These are the California values.”
California pays textbook publishers nearly $500 million a year, Thurmond said. Representatives from companies that produce school materials including the College Board and the Benchmark Education Co. testified in the state Capitol on Wednesday that they are committed to diversity and inclusion.
Thurmond warned that California will not work with publishers that have kowtowed to Republican concerns in other parts of the country.
“If you’re going to strip out the history of people in another state, you shouldn’t expect to do business in the state of California,” he said.
The hearing comes after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, signed legislation to limit teachings about sexual orientation, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Florida districts are now facing lawsuits from students and publishers, including a case over the removal of a children’s book about a penguin with two fathers.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has railed against such policies, posing in pictures reading banned books such as “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and demanding records from textbook companies in an attempt to determine if publishers supplying books to California are modifying texts they supply to red states.
“You don’t get to rewrite history in a back room. You don’t get to erase basic facts around segregation, the Holocaust, or Rosa Parks’ story,” he said in a tweet directed at DeSantis — a consistent political foe — in May.
California approved “social content” standards a decade ago that require schools to portray “accurately and equitably” cultural and racial diversity and to avoid gender stereotypes. The state also has laws in place mandating comprehensive sex education and LGBTQ+ history lessons.
In 2021, California became the first state to require ethnic studies as a graduation requirement for high school students.
“This kind of hearing probably belongs in other states more than it does in California,” Kevin Gordon, an education lobbyist who represents superintendents, said of Wednesday’s event. “I think they’re just trying to put more sunshine on what the state is already doing rather than actually expand some sort of reach into school districts.”
But local school boards have broad power, and education officials at Wednesday’s hearing acknowledged that it is difficult to enforce policies for the 10,000-plus schools that span California.
As Republican organizations work to get like-minded conservatives elected to school boards across the state, national political debates over issues such as critical race theory and gender are playing out at the hyper-local level.
A school board in Temecula opposed using a textbook that mentioned San Francisco politician and gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who was killed in 1978. The move drew the ire of Newsom, who said in a tweet, “This isn’t Texas or Florida. In the Golden State, our kids have the freedom to learn.”
In Murrieta, school board members blocked the use of “Give Me Liberty! An American History” by renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner, in part because they said it negatively portrayed former President Trump.
A Glendale Unified school board meeting led to protests and arrests over lessons on gender identity and sexuality.
Newsom, Thurmond and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta wrote a letter to superintendents and principals this month, putting them on notice about 1st Amendment protections and state laws regarding “representative and unbiased” curriculum. The letter warned that districts that ban books could be asked to comply with the attorney general’s office to “allow it to analyze your agency’s actions and procedures.”
Thurmond accused some school boards of using the state’s deference to local control as a way to hide “racism and hate.”
“Local control doesn’t give you the right to inflict pain on someone or even to threaten someone,” he said.
Jackie Gardner, a middle school science teacher in San Jacinto, has a rainbow LGBTQ+ pride flag hanging in her classroom but has friends in other districts who would not be able to do the same, she said. The state’s policy is “a gray area” and often dependent on individual communities, she said.
“We have a lot of community members who are still equating LGBTQ issues and a lot of other inclusion with something that is inappropriate, which is absolutely not what it is. We are keeping children alive by including this in our textbooks,” said Gardner, noting high suicide rates among queer youths. “There are educators who are sticking their necks out for this inclusivity and not always being supported by their school.”
Republican Lance Christensen, a vice president for the conservative California Policy Center who unsuccessfully ran for state superintendent last year, recently criticized Placer County schools for assigning bestselling novel “The Hate U Give” by author Angie Thomas. The book is about a teen who witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed Black friend by a white police officer.
Christensen accused state Democrats of feigning outrage and blowing the issue out of proportion.
“Just because a school decides not to curate a certain book doesn’t mean they’re banning books, it just means they don’t have to accept what the activist class feels they need to thrust upon these kids,” he said. “Parents can still grab those books for their kids at any local bookstore. There’s no burning of books happening.”
Members of the task force touted potential legislation that would work to hold school boards more accountable on the issue, but attempts so far have hit roadblocks in the Legislature, facing concerns from education advocates who want to maintain local control.
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