Orange County’s Board of Education will host its second ethnic studies forum tonight at 6 p.m. after the first event last month faced criticism that panelists were stacked to speak against the classes.

Ethnic studies courses are designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States. 

The forum is taking place amid a heated debate that has been going on across the country and in Orange County over how U.S. history is being taught and what aspects of it have been left out of curriculum thus far.

“The purpose is education,” the board’s President Mari Barke said in a phone interview Monday. “So many people don’t know what critical race theory is, how it differs from ethnic studies, how they are related, is it in the school curriculum, is it not. This is an opportunity to educate the public.”

[Read: OC Board of Education Hosts Forum as Heated Debate Over Ethnic Studies Continues]

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The second forum will include a different set of panelists, according to the meeting’s agenda:

Horton was also featured as a panelist at the Orange County Department of Education’s own ethnic studies forum just days before the board’s first event in July. Kaplan was initially supposed to attend the first forum but was later replaced.

Moderator Joe Collins (center) and Orange County Board of Education Trustees listen to panelists at their ethnic studies forum on July 27, 2021. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

Critics voiced that the first forum was biased against ethnic studies, as many of the panelists chosen by the board did not have a background in the curriculum.

Theresa Montaño, one of the original panelists for the first forum and Chicana/Chicano Studies professor at Cal State Northridge, dropped out of the forum one day prior to the board’s event.

She cited the lack of expertise and one-sided nature of a majority of panelists as the reason for dropping out.

[ Read: Ethnic Studies Professor Drops Out of County Board of Education Forum Over Fellow Panelists ]

“It was very disappointing for her to drop out the day before,” Barke said. “It was disappointing not to hear it straight from her … I think it would have been nice for her to come to the forum and express her concerns.”

Montaño instead spoke hours before the board’s first panel at a press conference held by Truth in Education, a newly launched group of parents, students, educators and clergy, who had similar criticism of the forum.

The group is receiving support from the Democratic Party of Orange County.

Ajay Mohan, the executive director of the county’s democratic party, said the forum tonight is another waste of taxpayer money and called it one of many publicity stunts run by the board of education.

“We’re sorry to see this happening again,” he said in a Monday phone interview. “We want people to know that really the Orange County Board of Education as it stands is really a voice of a loud far right vocal minority that doesn’t represent the needs and the will of students, parents and teachers in Orange County.”

Barke defended the panel.

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

The public meeting will be conducted onsite with limited seating at 200 Kalmus Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92880 and streamed live on YouTube.

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Some students, educators and parents are pushing their local districts to ensure the stories of people of color are reflected in the curriculum taught through ethnic studies classes.

Earlier this month, the Orange County Human Relations Commission in a press release endorsed ethnic studies classes being taught at K-12 schools and being required for high school students.

“The richness of American history lies within the woven fabric of all lives, cultures and histories that have contributed to its formation. Students engaging, connecting, and sharing experiences, histories, cultures – this enriches one’s lives and expands one’s worldview,” reads the release.

Others are pushing against these classes, worried that ethnic studies is a guise for what they call critical race theory seeping through the curriculum.

They argue that the theory is anti-American, divisive and will subject students to political indoctrination and marxist ideals. The theory itself has been banned in some states.

Opponents of the theory also say it teaches kids that all white people are racist while victimizing people of color.

“My children are not oppressed,” Parent Barbie George said at the first ethnic studies panel held by the county board of education in July. “And anyone who feels comfortable with a school or a teacher saying that, I feel very sorry for you.”

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The debate over ethnic studies and critical race theory has dominated public comments at some local district board meetings this year and even led Los Alamitos Unified School District trustees to hold one of their May board meetings virtually for safety reasons following recommendations from police. 

Proponents of ethnic studies classes say that debate has been plagued with misinformation and that “Critical Race Theory” is being used as a sort of bogeyman to scare people away from the classes.

“This debate should be only about ethnic studies,” Mohan said. “We know that ethnic studies will not only result in a more inclusive society, but also better outcomes for students.”

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 not in high school ethnic studies courses.

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Meanwhile, state lawmakers consider 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 Santa Ana Unified School District and the Anaheim Union High School District Trustees have both voted to make ethnic studies courses a graduation requirement for high school students.

Other districts like Tustin Unified and Los Alamitos Unified, are already moving forward with elective ethnic studies courses.

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

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

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