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The Orange County Board of Education held its second ethnic studies forum amid a heated debate between local parents, teachers and community members who are battling over ethnic studies courses being incorporated or expanded in local school districts’ curricula.

Throughout recent months, ethnic studies has been the topic of fiery debate on both a local and national level with community members at odds about how — or even if — ethnic studies should be included in public education.

On Tuesday night, the Orange County Board of Education hosted a group of panelists who gave opinions and voiced concerns about ethnic studies and critical race theory.

The board doesn’t set curricula for schools, which are instead set by the respective school districts who are overseen by the OC Department of Education.

The Board of Education’s only powers are final approval of the Department of Education budget and purchasing property. 

Panelist Elina Kaplan, the President of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies , related the ethnic studies model curriculum to neo-Marxist ideology from the Soviet Union, from which she emigrated from.

“As I was reading (the state ethnic studies model curriculum), I kept thinking, ‘Man, this is familiar,’” Kaplan said. “As it turns out, the reason it sounded familiar is because before I emigrated from the former Soviet Union, I was in fourth grade. We had just started the indoctrination process … The concept, terms and language all sounded familiar.”

Later in the forum, Kaplan created a distinction between two types of ethnic studies: constructive, which her organization promotes, and critical race theory-based ethnic studies, which she is critical of. 

“Constructive ethnic studies focuses on building bridges of understanding and uniting students around solving challenges together, including confronting racism, celebrating ethnic accomplishments and exposing them to multiple perspectives”

Elina Kaplan, President of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies

She criticized critical race theory-based ethnic studies as teaching certain students to feel oppressed.

D.A. Horton — an assistant professor and Program Director of Intercultural Studies at California Baptist University — spoke in support of ethnic studies in schools, describing studies that describe a link between ethnic studies and higher test scores and emotional well-being.

“Ethnic studies courses actually have been proven to improve the mental health of students,” Horton said. “Providing grounded, truthful content that compliments the various ethnicities in the montage of our school districts showed that they had a strong sense of ethnic identity and a high racial awareness and it was linked to young people’s mental health and achievement.” 

Horton, the only panelist to voice support for ethnic studies, said students do better when they learn who they are.

“When they felt affirmation of the whole of who they are, which is inclusive of their ethnicity, they actually performed better, their mental health actually began to get healthier,” he said.

OC Board of Education Trustee Lisa Sparks questioned the efficacy of studies cited by Horton, claiming the small sample sizes and the population demographic may not have produced legitimate results. 

“A lot of the general population and even the educated general population don’t really have an understanding of basic statistics and research methodology,” Sparks said. “So, you throw in ‘research says this and research says that,’ but you don’t really have an understanding of what is really going on in the study.”

Sparks described how the ethnic studies research — conducted in the San Francisco Unified School District — had demographics very different from an average student population, with 60% Asian students, 23% Hispanic, and 6% Black.

“We are basing support for ethnic studies … on this demographic of students as a broad brush for how ethnic studies is supporting at-risk students in every group,” Sparks said. “I think we need to be really careful about citing research and studies that don’t really have merti in the efficacy of the studies.”

Panelist James A. Lindsey, who published a book lambasting race and gender identity in 2020, spoke against critical race theory and also said it stems from Marxist ideas.

“Critical race theory begins from this proposition that racism is the ordinary state of affairs of society and that white people have no motivation to get rid of it,” Lindsey said. “That’s what they want to teach the children in this very anti-American, very openly expressed to be Marxist and neo-Marxist ideology based on liberation and wants liberation from reality.”

Proponents of ethnic studies classes say that debate has been plagued with misinformation and that critical race theory is being used as a scare tactic to drive people away from the classes.

The California School Boards Association says the theory emphasizes race as a social construct, as well as acknowledges that racism is embedded in American systems, institutions and laws. 

The association acknowledges that the theory developers are left-leaning scholars — some of whom were neo-Marxist — but says the theory itself is not inherently Marxist.

Academics say critical race theory examines how laws and structures in the U.S. have been historically leveraged against people of color. Local district officials say the theory is taught at the college level and does not included high school ethnic studies courses.

[ Read: OC Board of Education Hosts Second Ethnic Studies Panel; Misinformation Concerns Persist ]

Residents spoke out against the board’s first forum, saying the panelists were stacked to oppose ethnic studies.

Mike Rodriquez, a teacher and member of Truth of Education, said that the only word that came to his mind when he watched the first forum was “disappointed.”

“I feel like the panelists haven’t gotten to the crux of what ethnic studies is. It sounded like a huge echo chamber with a lot of propaganda coming out

Mike Rodriquez

Rodriguez also said that most of the panelists focused too much on critical race theory instead of how ethnic studies can help students.

“They are trying to take away from the fact that ethnic studies is trying to bring the experiences, cultures and histories of marginalized racialized groups into the textbooks,” Rodriguez said. “That’s something that’s been lacking in our curriculum for over 100 years.” 

The board’s President Mari Barke told Voice of OC in a phone interview Monday that the panel was fair and balanced. 

“I think it is a bipartisan and a very diverse panel,” Barke said Monday. “There are some people who are pro-ethnic studies and some people that aren’t … I feel it is very balanced.”

Mark McDonald — a clinical psychiatrist — spoke against ethnic studies and critical race theory, relating the curricula to COVID-19 mask mandates and vaccines.

McDonald described a young boy who is afraid of leaving his house and removing his mask due to the fear of dying from COVID-19 or infecting someone else. McDonald related this situation to the victimization that critical race theory based ehtnic studies can produce.

“This boy has become both a victim and an oppressor in his own mind because of lies,” McDonald said. “He wasn’t like this two years ago … This boy is now living in shame and he has lost his agency. These are the two positions, the bipolarization of the endpoints on a psychological level of what happens to students who are engaged in critical race theory and doctrination.”

The board will not be in charge of implementing ethnic studies in schools.

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

Unless those lawmakers approve a graduation requirement, it will ultimately be up to individual school districts in Orange County to decide whether to include ethnic studies in their curriculums and not the board of education.

The forum was streamed live on Youtube.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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