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Orange County educators, parents and students continue to battle over ethnic studies courses being incorporated or expanded in local school districts’ curricula — with some saying it’s too divisive, while others say it’s time for a reckoning on U.S. history.

Ethnic studies classes have been the subject of a national fiery debate in recent months that has educators, lawmakers, parents and students at odds over how U.S. history should be taught in K-12 schools and what has been left out.

The classes are designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States, according to academics who specialize in the course.

The County’s Board of Education, Tuesday, hosted a group of panelists who shared concerns about critical race theory and the state’s ethnic studies curriculum.

“It’s true that history needs to do a better job — it has done a better job over the last half century, of incorporating different narratives. But ethnic studies intrinsically sort of cuts against the grain of trying to make education unified,” said panelist Richard Sander, a professor of law at UCLA.

He also said ethnic studies undermines free discourse and will increase political polarization.

Panelists shared their concerns about critical race theory and ethnic studies at a forum hosted by the Orange County Board of Education on July 27, 2021. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

Brandy Shufutinsky, a core team member at the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, said a constructive approach to teaching ethnic studies rather than a critical one can build understanding, awareness and empathy while countering racism.

“Constructive ethnic studies does not put students in the middle of a left wing versus right wing tug of war. Instead, it openly embraces historical realities — the good, the bad, and the ugly — while providing opportunity for conversation, debate and learning,” she said.

“Racism and discrimination are addressed in the constructive approach to ethnic studies. However, students are not held responsible for the sins of their foremothers and forefathers.”

Most if not all of the people who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment railed against critical race theory, ethnic studies, the state’s model ethnic studies curriculum or how the courses are divisive.

“I believe ethnic studies and critical race theory promotes racism and hate. It focuses on our country’s defeats rather than our victories. Immigrants from oppressed countries risked their lives to come here because there are opportunities.”

Harry Dobashi, a father, during public comments at the forum.
Harry Dobashi, a father, spoke during public comments at the Orange County Board of Education’s ethnic studies forum on July 27, 2021 Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

The board’s much anticipated forum was the first of two expected to take place over the Summer and has faced an array of concerns from parents who say the panelists chosen to speak were “stacked” against ethnic studies. 

[ Read: OC Board of Education to Host Ethnic Studies Forum Amid Misinformation Concerns ]

Hours before the forum — Truth in Education, a newly launched group of parents, students, educators and clergy, held their own news conference at a school in Newport beach rallying against the county board of education’s forum just minutes away from where the forum took place.

“The so-called expert panel of people who will be speaking at the OC Board of Education hearing later today are not speaking from the experience of ethnic studies. They want to spread misinformation. They want to spread lies. Shame on them and shame on the organizers of this public hearing.”

Jose Paolo Magcalas, Anaheim Elementary School District trustee and former ethnic studies high school teacher, 

The community group argues the county board of education has used taxpayer dollar funded forums to push an agenda.

A couple of people protested outside the forum in favor of ethnic studies before the panel started.

Board trustees say the ethnic studies forums are intended to provide information about an important issue of high interest to Orange County residents.

The Ethnic Studies Debate in Orange County

Some local school districts have been moving forward with implementing these classes into their curriculum through elective courses or a graduation requirement.

Districts are facing pressure from educators, parents and students who want to see the history of people of color in America more reflected in the curriculum.

“This class is a very empowering class for both white students and students of color because it teaches the truth,” said Roselinn Lee, a member of Truth in Education.

Lee, in a Tuesday phone interview, said students will learn about historical discrimination, but also how people of color pushed back against it.

“They learn about how communities of color have faced a lot of discrimination and violence. But at the same time, they learn about how these communities of color stood up to this violence and discrimination and fought against it,” she said.

The districts are also facing pressure from other community members who don’t want ethnic studies in the classroom — many of whom say critical race theory will also be taught in the course.

They say the theory is anti-American, marxist, political indoctrination and teaches students that all white people are racist while victimizing people of color. Some states have banned the theory.

Maimon Schwarzschild, a panelist at the forum and a professor of law at the University of San Diego, said some of the characteristics of the theory evoke practices of totalitarian regimes.

“Some of the tropes and techniques of ethnic studies and critical race theory as now practiced in many U.S. classrooms — they’re chilling parallels in the techniques of ideological indoctrination in the school rooms of those totalitarian regimes,” he said

“Critical race theory as actually adopted in K-12 classrooms has been tellingly described as the kind of curriculum that might be imposed on a defeated country by a conquering power, determined to divide and demoralize the defeated population.”

He also said critical race theory poses legal questions and liabilities for public school systems.

Other academics, like Theresa Montaño, a Chicana/Chicano Studies professor at Cal State Northridge who dropped out of the OC Board of Education panel, say critical race theory is about recognizing the impact that race has on every student in the United States

She argues critical race theory is not anti-White, but calls attention to institutional racism that impacts everyone and looks at how to deconstruct it.

“That’s not victimization. That’s empowerment,” Montaño said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We know ethnic studies improves the academic achievement of all students, including white students.” 

Regardless of the discussion in Tuesday’s forum, it will be up to the local school districts to decide on offering ethnic studies.

Unless the state legislature takes the decision out of their hands.

State lawmakers are currently considering making ethnic studies a graduation requirement for high schoolers across California.

“I welcome the day when ethnic studies will be taught in K-12 schools and I think it’s coming. And I think the beauty of the bill is that every district will be able to engage in its own development of what that ethnic studies course will look like in their districts,” said Montaño who served on the state’s 2020 ethnic studies model curriculum advisory committee.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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