Debate heats up over teaching ethnic studies in Santa Clara County
A collage of images organizers created that was used to accompany a petition in support of ethnic studies. Photo courtesy Peter Ortiz.

Santa Clara County’s landmark resolution supporting ethnic studies is being challenged by some who claim it is un-American, prompting supporters to launch a petition to save the school board’s efforts to bring race-related education to classrooms.

Eight months after the Board of Education passed the resolution, supporters believe it has come under fire from what they say are right-wing activists looking to derail the county’s ethnic studies-related initiatives.

“They claim our program is rooted in anti-American propaganda, or that it’s anti-white,” board trustee Peter Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “It’s extremely important that we include critical ethnic studies because we can’t recognize the problems in society if we’re not even allowed to talk about them.”

Meanwhile, parents against the resolution say they’re not opposed to ethnic studies — just the way it’s presented.

“We want to build bridges of understanding, which is really the purpose of ethnic studies,” said Lia Rensin, a Los Altos parent of two high school students. “What we’re concerned about is what we’ve seen across the state — the really valuable subject of ethnic studies, which we are all behind, has been hijacked by a particular, politicized type called ‘critical’ ethnic studies.”

Rensin initiated a Feb. 3 letter, signed by approximately 500 others, to the Board of Education that states the county’s resolution promotes a “militant” and “anti-Western agenda” that forces students to define themselves as either racial oppressors or victims.

In response to the letter, Ortiz, local activist Kiana Simmons and Oak Grove School Board Trustee Beija Gonzalez, this week launched a pro-ethnic studies petition that seeks to defend the resolution. As of this afternoon, 2,300 people had signed it.

The opposition claims critical race theory curriculum is one-sided. They say students would instead benefit more from other approaches to teaching race, such as the constructive ethnic studies approach, which seeks to remove perceived political biases and an alleged violation in the state’s education code in teaching ethnic studies.

“The material in the (county’s) proposed ethnic studies program forces a particular ideology based on Marxism, rather than promoting inquiry and exploration,” Jessica Davidson, a parent of two former Los Altos-area students, said at the board’s Feb. 3 meeting. “If ethnic studies is to be taught, it should be to teach each other about our diverse cultures, so we can better understand and appreciate each other.”

The board wasn’t required to take any action that night despite calls from the opposition to place the item on a future agenda for discussion.

Ortiz said he hopes the resolution stays as is.

“As an individual board member I do not want to give far-right voices that are using Trump tactics to divide our community a platform in Santa Clara County,” he said.

 

Oak Grove School District became the first in Santa Clara County to adopt an ethnic studies resolution in December 2019. After the county passed its resolution in June, two other districts — Alum Rock Union and Mount Pleasant Elementary — followed suit with declarations of their own.

A 2016 Stanford study revealed classes with ethnic- and race-related courses boost attendance and grades for students at risk of dropping out. The studies also show ethnic studies classes help improve achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students.

“I think it’s important for people to understand ethnic studies is a longstanding academic discipline,” said Anna Sampaio, chair of the ethnic studies department at Santa Clara University. “It has this powerful effect that extends well beyond just even the corrective it provides. That’s a benefit for everybody.”

Out of more than 263,000 students in Santa Clara County, approximately 81% are students of color, with Latino students making up the largest share with 38%.

“It’s not a difficult thing for children to understand inequality or injustice,” Sampaio said. She recalled a time where she taught her daughter through picture books about the Latino labor movement and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Resnin said there are ways to engage younger people in ethnic studies, such as ensuring authors in textbooks have a wider variety of viewpoints.

“It’s important that as we teach age-appropriate history, that you teach it honestly,” Resnin said. “Nobody’s talking about so-called ‘whitewashing’ it. I think that having an only-Eurocentric curriculum is also not the right answer. We support ethnic studies in those regards.”

Those who support the county resolution say they are hoping their petition will encourage all districts in the county — and eventually the state — to adopt ethnic studies resolutions.

Both sides, however, say they want students to see more of themselves in textbooks.

“I can remember reading only one book by a Black author my entire high school career,” said Simmons, founder of San Jose-based nonprofit H.E.R.O. Tent, a nonprofit that provides aid and assistance for the homeless and has supported racial protests.  “For only one time in my entire high school career I was able to share a little bit of my culture.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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