LGBT in textbooks: New law, but so far little has changed

One of the Capitol’s fiercest 2011 rhetorical duels centered on including the contributions of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons in the social studies curriculum of California’s public schools.

“Social studies classes require the inclusion of just about every traditionally overlooked community you can think of,” said Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, who carried the bill – SB 48 – mandating the curriculum change.

“Conspicuous by its absence is LGBT citizens. We’ve literally been censoring a chapter in civil rights history.”

From the “Stop SB 48” website, maintained by groups who attempted to referendize the new law:

“SB 48 will use all social science curriculum, including history books and other instructional materials, to teach children as young as five not only to accept but also to endorse transgenderism, bisexuality, and homosexuality.”

Leno’s bill took effect Jan. 1 and, not surprisingly, very little has changed in how history is taught in public schools.

Nor is much likely to happen for several years to come – unless districts voluntarily act.

Changes to state-approved textbooks won’t occur for the better part of four years. Maybe longer.

High school districts that buy their own textbooks – often a once-in-seven-years occurrence – aren’t required to make instructional changes until they purchase new books.

Kindergarten through Grade 8 school districts don’t need to modify their curriculum until the state creates new instructional guidelines and OKs new textbooks for their use.

“The immediate impact of this change is the halting of any instruction and curriculum promoting discrimination against the groups called out in the new law,” said Tom Adams, director of the Curriculum, Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division for the state Department of Education.

“And there’s no record of any district doing that.”

Despite assertions by opponents of the legislation’s intent, Gov. Jerry Brown approved the curriculum change saying, “History should be honest.”

After the Democratic governor’s signature in July, opponents swiftly launched a referendum to block implementation of the measure. It failed to qualify in October.

Undaunted, a group of opponents, including the Pacific Justice Institute Center for Public Policy, filed an initiative with the Attorney General on December 21 – the “Children Learning Accurate Social Science Act” – to eliminate the new requirement.

Once approved for circulation later this month, its backers will have a short 90 days to collect nearly 505,000 valid signatures to place the measure on this November’s ballot.

For now, as Sue Stickel, deputy superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education says:

“Local school districts are implementing this change in law in the way that best serves their students.”

Leno’s bill is just the latest change to Education Code Section 51204.5.

Since the 1970s, the state’s curriculum has been required to include the “role and contributions” to the “economic, political and social development of California and the United States of America” of a growing variety of men and women.

Among them, prior to Leno’s bill, which also added disabled persons to the list, are Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and European Americans.

In the past, however, the state offered districts instructional guidelines and approved textbooks to help ensure compliance.

That’s not the case this time.

As part of the state’s ongoing budget woes, public schools were allowed to postpone buying new textbooks until after July 2015. A moratorium was also placed on creating new state curriculum frameworks until the same date.

While the framework is used by all 1,042 of the state’s school districts, districts with students in kindergarten through Grade 8 purchase their textbooks from a state-approved list.
Of the state’s more than 9,900 schools, 7,060 are elementary, middle or junior high.

According to the state Department of Education, in the absence of new state-created curriculum guidelines or approved textbooks, those kindergarten through Grade 8 schools need do nothing about SB 48 until the state acts.  

High schools – there are just over 1,236 of them and 332 unified school districts – can choose their own textbooks.

They don’t become subject to SB 48’s requirements – unless they wish to be – until the next time they buy new social studies textbooks.

Given continuing fiscal constraints, it’s unlikely public schools will buy new textbooks until the state says they must: After July 2015.

And there is no enforcement mechanism in the legislation to snure compliance.

All of which makes it unclear what – if any – social studies curriculum changes will take place in most of the state’s school districts over the next few years.

Stickel’s office alerted the districts under their umbrella to the changes in law wrought by SB 48 and recommended reading the state Department of Education’s FAQs about implementing the measure,

Among other things, the two-page FAQs reiterates what Stickel says:

“It falls to the teacher and the local school and district administration to determine how this content is covered and at which grade levels.”

Proponents say that’s an example of SB 48’s flexibility. Detractors say it’s further evidence of the law’s vagueness.

Another example of vagueness used by opponents is the law’s impact on charter schools.

The last paragraph of the three-page bill reads:

“It is the intent of the Legislature that alternative and charter schools take notice of the provisions of this act in light of (state law) which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other specified characteristics.”

Does that paragraph mandate compliance or merely ask that charter schools be aware of the new law?

“A charter school that ignores this could come under criticism,” Leno says carefully.

What is clear is that if a school district wants to present the role and contributions of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons in California and American history it is more than free to do so.

San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified – the largest school district in the state and the second largest in the nation – are already doing so, albeit in slightly less formal ways.
The state says districts can insert the new curriculum wherever they think best but notes that good choices might be the Grade 4 unit on California history and the Grade 11 curriculum dealing with modern U.S. history and the civil rights movements.

Los Angeles has had sexual orientation and gender identification included in its health classes – and textbooks – since 2004.

Since new social studies textbooks reflecting SB 48’s mandate aren’t available, the district is providing its teachers with supplemental instruction options.

Just on the site maintained by Judy Chiasson, the district’s coordinator for human relations, diversity and equity, at least 12 lesson plans are already posted including &ldqu
o;Aesthetics of Activism: AIDS Awareness,”“On Coming Out: Exploring the Stories of Gay Teenagers, Grades 6-12” and “Unheard Voices: Stories of LGBT History.”

Chiasson says the goal is to provide teachers with as many curriculum choices as possible.

San Francisco Unified, which has offered counseling to gay students since 1990 and included sexual orientation in its health teaching since 1992, coordinates its LGBT curriculum with Gay Pride Month in June.

Teachers use supplemental lesson plans to highlight the accomplishments of historical figures who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, said district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe.

Gays are also included in a monthly “Respect” curriculum that emphasizes diversity and inclusion of a broad range of persons.

“As a district we already support the spirit of the law and are reviewing it to see if we can increase our instructional materials covering LGBT people from history,” Blythe said.
Adds Chiasson:

“Some people may think this is a bunch of gay activists with an agenda. Our (state) Department of Education knows the cost of invisibility and has called for inclusive curriculum for 50 years now.

“LGBT is just the latest group on the list of persons whose contributions to America should be recognized.

“In the 60s, it was African Americans. The Chicano movement. The women’s movement. This is no different than what’s happened 10 times before. It’s just making sure our education system respects the people and families in our school communities.”

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