Theresa Montaño, Chicana/Chicano Studies professor at Cal State Northridge, was supposed to be part of an ethnic studies forum created by the Orange County Board of Education. But she dropped out abruptly this week, saying the invitation to form the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity was a “deception.”
She tells KCRW that when she was asked to join the group, she was told it would be a diverse panel of ethnic studies experts who would discuss how to teach children the history and contributions of Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American communities in the U.S.
But she says she quickly realized some of the panelists may not have the right qualifications to discuss the curriculum on race and ethnicity. “In my judgment, the folks on the panel were neither experts nor were they diverse in their opinions,” explains Montaño.
Other panelists include UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander, a known critic of affirmative action; Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies member Brandy Shufutinsky; University of San Diego law professor Maimon Schwarzschild, who is also a Federalist Society contributor, among others.
“If I had thought that it was going to be a meaningful, engaging dialogue or whether it opened the door to even differing opinions about the implementation, I would have stayed on,” says Montaño.
Parents, educators and community members in Orange County — and other parts of the nation — continue to wrangle over whether ethnic studies should be a part of the local K-12 curriculum.
The latest forum was one of two that the Orange County Board of Education is hosting. Montaño believes the next panel on August 24 will most likely be another political forum that would allow the panelists “to air their anti-ethnic studies views.”
The ethnic studies battle in Orange County rages on
For months, the conservative-learning Board of Education and Orange County school districts have been at the center of whether ethnic studies should be offered in classrooms.
While the state Board of Education approved ethnic studies guidance for California’s schools earlier this year, it is up to each individual school district to decide whether and how it will implement it. So far, several OC school districts, including Los Alamitos, Santa Ana Unified and Anaheim Union High School, have decided to include ethnic studies courses.
Montaño says there is such a fierce debate over ethnic studies in Orange County right now because people don’t know what ethnic studies are.
“Once we have a better understanding of how they benefit all of us, then folks are less fearful of what ethnic studies are and should be,” says the CSUN professor.
While some parents at the forum said an ethnic studies curriculum is divisive, Montaño disagrees. She says already-established ethnic studies classrooms show that they engage students and help create healthy, cross-cultural relationships.
“We see better understanding of one another when we have ethnic studies. It’s not someone else’s history. It’s not a story of people of color — it’s America’s story.” she says.
The debate around critical race theory
The Board of Education’s forum not only focused on ethnic studies, but also critical race theory, which is an academic approach that examines how race functions in American institutions. It is not a part of the state’s ethnic studies guidance but has become a flash point in debates about education across the nation. Several states have banned the theory.
Montaño believes critical race theory has taken a prominent role because people who are opposed to ethnic studies are going to look for any reason to oppose it.
“This is kind of like the Willie Horton of days gone by when you actually take an incident, blow it up, and use it as your excuse to go against something that's very popular. And ethnic studies are popular,” she says.
Some parents — and even the Orange County Board of Education President Ken L. Williams — have called critical race theory and ethnic studies both Marxist and anti-American. Montaño says the curriculum is anything but anti-American.
“We need to examine the role that race has played in institutions that have promoted racist ideals and principles. That is un-American,” she explains.
Others have said critical race theory is anti-white and that it marginalizes white students.
“Engaging in conversations about race is not anti-white. It is absolutely beneficial to everyone, including white students. It creates the conditions for cross-cultural relationships based on mutual respect. And our students need it for their own health [and] well-being,” Montaño explains.
Should ethnic studies be a graduation requirement?
State lawmakers are currently grappling with whether to make ethnic studies a requirement to graduate from California high schools.
While some see another requirement as an extra barrier for California high schoolers to graduate, Montaño disagrees.
“Seventy percent of the students in the state of California are students of color, 54% of the students in California are Latino. It is not too much to ask for a single course to focus on their history and story. That is not a lot to ask for in 12 years of education,” she says.