Textbooks’ handling of minorities targeted in new legislation

California lawmakers are pushing for changes in California's textbooks to reflect the concerns of several ethnic communities who say the state curriculum's current treatment lacks depth, and that more is needed than a few token lines portraying their history.

Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, best known for his efforts to allow drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants, wants to require social science courses to shed light on a number of issues, including the deportation of Latino citizens during the Great Depression.

Inspired by the work of a previous colleague, former Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, Cedillo said his SB 1214 attempts to bridge the knowledge gap primarily in students attending junior high and high school.

"I'm personally concerned that that lack of history that we have in this state, continues to permit the type of hysteria that's taking place at this moment, against immigrants," Cedillo says. "So because of that, I believe that education and knowledge are vital tools against hysteria, racism, and nativism."

An expanded treatment of treatment of ethnic communities in textbooks is not universally supported. The Department of Finance, which writes the state budgets for the governor, says there is nothing in law that prevents inclusion of ethnic content in textbooks. The department also questions whether spending funds on the textbooks makes sense in a tight budget year.

The governor's education advisers have raised similar concerns.

Cedillo said California children should learn about massive police raids were conducted nationwide against Mexican communities, who were blamed for the rise of unemployment. By the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, some 400,000 American citizens and legal residents in California alone were deported to Mexico.

"It was a horrific circumstance- two and a half million Americans were deported, to a country that was not even theirs', Cedillo says. "It's a very dark period in American and California history, and we should not try to hide that history. We should be aware of it."

The bill, currently in the Assembly, is not the only one attempting to make reforms for next year's framework of history-social science curriculum.

Another bill, AB 2064 by Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, would require instruction on the Vietnam War to include information about the "Secret War" in Laos, as well as the role of Southeast Asians in that war and their refugee experience.

Southeast Asians fought alongside the United States against the spread of communism during the Vietnam War; and the Central Intelligence Agency recruited people such as members of the Hmong culture, later to be known as the "Secret Army," to take party.

Some grassroots organizations say the legislation will directly impact students, who will benefit academically when their histories are incorporated within their everyday studies.

"Research shows that embracing native histories and traditions — also known as culturally-relevant teaching — increases student success and may aid in reducing the achievement gap between students of color and their peers," says Naomi Steinberg, deputy director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center."

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, who heads the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said he is examining textbooks with an eye on their ethnic content. Portantino himself is of Italian descent.

"I had interns bring in their textbooks, and many of them don't mention it (contributions of Italian Americans) — it's just one line. And that doesn't pertain to just Italian Americans, but many accomplishments by many other groups. Give that challenge to those who write the curriculum to be better. It's not fantastic, but it could be better."

Portantino is the author of AB 1863, a bill that would teach the role of Italian Americans in California and the United States' development.

Despite being the fifth largest ethnic group in America with nearly 1.5 million residing in California, Portantino says, Italians were never recognized for the distinctive cultural role they played in shaping American life.

The Department of Finance opposes the bill because nothing in current law prevents instructors from incorporating European Americans, which includes Italian-Americans, within their lesson plans. Furthermore, the department argues that additional expenses in instructional material might contribute to "Proposition 98 General Fund cost pressure," according to the bill analysis.

Portantino disagrees.

"Asking them to do it is different from allowing them from doing it." In response to concerns about costs, he answers, "When these books are in their normal course of being updated, they should just be updated. So we're not asking for additional costs."

Gov. Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on any of the bills, although he has a track record of rejecting specific guidelines on school curriculum.

"I have consistently vetoed legislation that attempts to incorporate specific historical events or groups of people into social science instruction," he said in 2006 upon vetoing SB 1575, authored by former Senator Joe Dunn. That bill aimed to pay reparations to those deported to Mexico in the 1930s.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: