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Task Force Says California Textbooks Should Reflect State's Diversity

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A number of young people walk and run across a tarmac in the direction of a playground.
Students leave lunch for recess at Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland on April 28, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and legislators on a new task force on inclusive education extracted commitments Wednesday from publishers and vowed more oversight with potential penalties on school boards that resist state policies on inclusive materials.

The task force’s news conference and legislative hearing served as a warning to textbook companies not to retreat under pressure from giving students access to frank and positive portrayals of California’s diverse population — or risk hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.

“Many of our textbooks haven’t kept up with that diversity. This is a chance to diversify those narratives,” Thurmond said. “This is all happening against the backdrop of where you have governors in other states literally trying to strip out any representation about race, about the experience of LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities. California’s going in the other direction.”

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The session also coincided with heated confrontations this month in some California districts — arguments in Glendale Unified over support of Pride month, and an investigation by the California Department of Education and Attorney General Rob Bonta into the Temecula Valley Unified board’s rejection of a curriculum recommended by a committee of teachers and parents because it mentioned gay activist and leader Harvey Milk.

This week, Assemblymember Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced a bill that would add teeth to the FAIR Education Act, a 2011 law that requires textbooks to include the contributions of racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ+ people while prohibiting their negative portrayals. Along with expressly prohibiting a school board from contradicting state laws requiring “inclusive policies, practices, and curriculum,” it would authorize a school board to censure and, by a two-thirds vote, oust a member who tried to do so. Bonta’s spouse is the state attorney general.

Thurmond announced the membership of the 10-member task force, co-chaired with Sen. Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara, with all Democratic legislators, this week. Although the first session focused on school textbooks, Thurmond said the task force would be a source of ideas for developing and advocating for legislation on inclusive practices.

They include AB 5, by task force member Rick Chavez Zbur, an Assemblymember from Santa Monica, and AB 1078, by task force member Corey Jackson, an assemblymember from Perris.

AB 5, backed by the California Teachers Association, would develop training in LGBTQ cultural competency for teachers and administrators.

AB 1078 originally called for school districts to seek state board approval before banning a book from schools or school libraries or seeking to not teach a required curriculum. As currently amended, it would only require the California Department of Education to guide districts and charter schools on how to conduct conversations about race and gender, and how to review instructional materials to ensure they are culturally relevant.

Thurmond, task force members and speakers Wednesday said they’d favor more oversight state of school districts to prevent actions like that of the Temecula Valley Unified board.

“Our students have been asking for the right to not be bullied because they’re LGBTQ+ students. They have been bullied by adults simply for raising their voices for what they believe. There is legislation that will address the actions of these school boards,” said Thurmond. One would impose a fee for any district that bans a book, he said.

A Black man in a navy business suit, gray tie and white shirt is sitting at a table with a notepad and pen in front of him speaking with his hands extending out. He has a serious face.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, along with the support of a newly formed task force meant to monitor textbooks for inclusivity and diversity, said students should have access to frank and positive portrayals of California’s diverse population. He warned of potential penalties on school boards that resist state policies on such materials. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

“Oversight of curriculum implementation is critical to ensure that all students are seen, respected and valued,” Zbur said. “Representation is crucial for youth who may feel that they are all alone.”

“When districts try to censor history, hold them accountable,” said Don Romesburg, a professor of gender studies and history at Sonoma State. “I know this is a local-control state, and that is wonderful, but that shouldn’t allow ideologues to run roughshod over law, policy and processes based in careful deliberation, public input and scholarship-based evidence.”

Thurmond used the session both to explain why diverse students benefit when they see themselves in instructional materials and to wheedle pledges for inclusivity from the four textbook companies that attended.

“Inclusive education is more than ‘woke education,’ as some have called it. Inclusive education helps our students to have academic success, social success, and to be able to contribute to their communities,” Thurmond said.

A former school board member, Limon said she learned about the Chumash Indians only as an adult. “Never once did I have access to material, to literature, to content that was reflective of the Native people of the place that I was born and grew up in,” she said.

For more than two decades, California history and social studies standards have required attention to the stories, cultures and accurate histories of California’s diverse racial and ethnic groups. The curriculum frameworks that the state board adopted fleshed out the standards grade by grade with samples of lessons.

They provided guidance for publishers to write textbooks, which were then reviewed in a state adoption process. The state’s voluntary model ethnic studies curriculum, the basis for a mandatory course in high school, starting in 2025–26, concentrates on four groups of people: African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans.

But those who testified said there are inadequate instructional materials that open windows into the lives of diverse populations and mirror most students’ experiences.

“As Californians, often we’re too quick to sing our praises,” said Chris Nellum, executive director of the nonprofit Education Trust-West, which advocates for racially diverse groups of students. “The truth is, the evidence tells us inclusivity in our curriculum is already lacking.”

Thurmond said: “We have a wonderfully diverse student body in California, and many of our textbooks haven’t kept up with that diversity. This is a chance to diversify those narratives.”

Pressures and risks for publishers

Thurmond asked those at the hearing to applaud representatives from the four textbook publishers that attended the hearing — and indicated that many others declined the invitation.

The companies were only given a minute for statements, and then to respond to Thurmond’s and others’ often leading questions to recognize that they have a financial stake in creating content that honors the state’s diverse student population, where students of color make up two-thirds of enrollment.

“The question is,” said Thurmond, “do you believe it is in your financial best interest? These efforts that you’re talking about, do they contribute to a financial benefit to your company — and if they haven’t, do you think that they could?”

And then, he asked, “Are you willing to continue working with this task force? Are you willing to come up with some thoughts on what we might do for those publishers who aren’t here? Yes, no, maybe? OK, I got a thumbs up.”

All the representatives affirmed that they include a diversity of voices and perspectives in their textbooks and take inclusivity seriously. While demurring on Thurmond’s question on how much revenue comes from California, they said they would not bend to pressure from other states and districts to change their focus on equity.

Jackson implied that the state should use the leverage of state funding to see that districts comply with the state’s recommendations. “If we can’t get commitments from publishers, I can almost guarantee you that there will be a bill to ensure that California doesn’t spend a dime when it comes to purchasing those textbooks.”

John McCurdy, CEO of Studies Weekly, which produces social studies, science and health materials, said, “It doesn’t happen often but on occasion, we have lost business across the country because people know we support the FAIR Act in California. As I said, we are committed to it.”

Gregory Walker, senior vice president of The College Board, which administers AP courses and produces course content through its subsidiary SpringBoard, alluded to its response this week to attacks by the state of Florida for the inclusion of gender identity in its AP Psychology course. “Students who want to become a psychologist need to study that content,” he said.

“We have made hard decisions at The College Board to do what is right for content, curriculum, and for students for their futures,” he said. “And if that means a reduction in market share or revenue, we are OK with that decision because that is the right decision for students.”

“I’m going to tweet that,” Thurmond said. “That’s a perfect statement.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.

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