Following widespread controversy and complaints of anti-Semitic bias in a proposed curriculum in ethnic studies, state Assembly member Jose Medina (D-Riverside) announced on Aug. 22 that until the complaints are addressed, he would put the brakes on a bill he wrote to make the course a graduation requirement for California high school students.
"I strongly believe in the tenets of Ethnic Studies and continue to assert that it is time for California to make the subject a requirement for all students," the statement read. "This underscores the importance of taking the time necessary to ensure we get the curriculum right."
Medina, who represents a majority Latino district encompassing the Riverside area, is also one of the few non-Jewish members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.
In an interview with J. on Monday, he said issues relevant to the Jewish community are deeply relevant to him, both professionally and personally, because he has two Jewish children.
"Their mother is Jewish, from Panama," he said. "I will be at High Holidays this year, as I have been for many years."
Medina was a member at Temple Beth El in Riverside for years, he said. Earlier this month he hung a mezuzah on his office door celebrating the passage of a bill to protect the right of Californians to display religious items on their doorframes.
His announcement last week followed the release earlier this summer of a 350-page model curriculum, to be used as the basis for voluntary statewide instruction, that drew condemnation from Jewish groups and secular critics.
Dozens of Jewish organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation to JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, took issue with the draft. They said they were troubled by the fact that it did not deal meaningfully with anti-Semitism; left out a discussion of the Jewish American experience; was supportive of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; and was otherwise sharply critical of Israel without providing historical context.
Medina said he shared many of the concerns expressed by Jewish groups. In July, he signed onto a letter with Jewish lawmakers that said the proposed curriculum, developed by an 18-member committee over a series of daylong meetings earlier this year, reflected "anti-Jewish bias."
"There were many things about it that seemed to be anti-Semitic," he told J. "I think the omission of the Jewish experience in the United States is glaring. I don't really think BDS should be included. And I also have an issue with the fact that anti-Semitism is not addressed."
He also said he had trouble with some of the "academic jargon" that was used, echoing an Aug. 4 editorial in the Los Angeles Times critiquing the curriculum as "jargon-filled" and "all-too-PC."
As a former high school ethnic studies and Chicano studies teacher, Medina said he believes firmly in the benefits of teaching ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color. Studies have shown it can lead to improved attendance and higher grades for struggling high school students.
"I saw firsthand the value of students seeing themselves included in the curriculum," he said.
In his own family, he said, his children are taught to be proud of their dual heritage.
"Just as my own children were proud of their Jewishness, they were, at the same time, proud of being Latino," he said. "I think that's what ethnic studies can do."
If Medina's bill eventually passes, California would be the first state in the country to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement.
The bill had already passed the Assembly overwhelmingly on May 23 and was approved by the Senate Education Committee on June 26, before he decided to delay AB 331 and make it a "two-year bill" that would extend discussion into next year.
The Instructional Quality Commission, the state board tasked with revising the model curriculum based on public input, will be making edits to the draft during public meetings Sept. 19-20.
In a statement released through his press office last week, Medina said there is "consensus" in support of ethnic studies, but that the uncertainties swirling around the curriculum need to be resolved.
"It is not a question of whether the subject itself is necessary," the statement read. "But rather, how do we ensure the curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous, and inclusive enough."
"Very basically," he told J., "I want to give the Department of Education the time that they need to get the curriculum right."