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Ethnic Studies Committee meets amid questions about program’s future

Craig Clough | June 9, 2015

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Ethnicstudiesnow-800x567Amid a suddenly contentious environment, the Ethnic Studies Advisory Board met last week with a lot of new questions in front of it and the LA Unified school board was set to discuss the issue today.

When the LA Unified school board voted in the fall to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school gradation, it received mostly praise and a lot of press coverage, as it made the district only the second in the state to have the requirement, and the first large one. The San Francisco Unified School District followed with similar plans.

But the temperature has quickly changed. Superintendent Ramón Cortines recently pulled his support for the graduation requirement. The district budget office estimated it would cost $72 million over four years, dropping plenty of jaws. The committee itself said it believed the timetable the board set was too aggressive and should be pushed back. The Los Angeles Times editorial board called the rollout “an embarrassment.” The Ethnic Studies Now Coalltion, which championed the board resolution, is now planning to protest today outside district headquarters in response to Cortines’ position.

The Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee was formed by Cortines as part of the November ethnic studies resolution, and it is tasked with giving the district guidance and recommendations. Made up of retired teachers, professors, scholars, district staff, some Ethnic Studies Now! members and others, the committee numbers several dozen and suddenly has a whole host of problems on its plate.

While Cortines has now said he is against ethnic studies as graduation requirement, he is in favor of the district expanding its elective offerings in the field, and the committee focused much of its meeting on the points Cortines does support, committee member Allan Kakassy told LA School Report. Cortines attended the meeting for about 30 minutes, but was there mostly to listen, Kakassy said.

But some members of the committee also had questions about the district’s budget projections. Kakassy stressed that the committee itself did not have any direct involvement in the district’s $72 million budget projection, and did not even have a chance to review it before it was made publicly available for the May 25 Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee meeting. Much of the budget costs were for textbooks and the hiring of new teachers. 

“The budget, in particular certain areas like textbook adoption, and the number of teachers that would have to be hired, that seemed excessive. We suggested other ways to approach this,” said Kakassy, who is a retired LAUSD social studies teacher.

Rather than try to answer all the new questions in the air, most of the meeting was spent focusing on the common ground the committee shares with Cortines on how to expand elective offerings, Kakassy said.

“We were more concerned about what was doable than what was not doable,” he said.

The common ground between the board and Cortines is to develop an ethnic studies survey course over the next school year, study existing courses to see if they align with ethnic studies, outline areas for professional development for teachers, and review options other than textbook purchases, including software and other materials that might be less expensive.

He also added that he has not heard yet what the board plans to do in light of Cortines’ viewpoint on the graduation requirement and the possibility the board will revisit the topic.

“The committee has some split opinion on the graduation requirement, but I think the majority feel that is ultimately best to make it a graduation requirement . But we weren’t unresponsive to the superintendent’s budgetary concerns,” Kakassy said.

The Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, which has several members on the committee, does plan to fight if the board reconsiders the graduation requirement and is holding a rally today outside the board’s meeting. While the board did not have any resolutions on the table to vote on regarding ethnic studies, it was expected to discuss the topic.

“Early analysis by independent budget experts reveal that this budget is highly speculative and inflated in the areas of textbook and teacher costs,” the group wrote on its website. “It appears that the budget is designed to induce sticker shock to provide fodder for a pre-emptive media blitz aimed at shutting down ethnic studies.”

In light of the new mood, Kakassy said an option he may recommend is for the district to delay the graduation requirement but still keep it on the table.

“A truer picture of the ethnic studies graduation requirement might come next year, when we see what a more realistic budget looks like,” Kakassy said. “It seems like there is a high degree of common ground between the superintendent, the committee and Ethic Studies Now.”



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