Two Bay Area school districts sued for access to ethnic studies records

A nonprofit law firm that represents Jewish and pro-Israel students in discrimination lawsuits is suing to compel two Bay Area school districts to turn over public records related to their ethnic studies classes.

In each suit, the Deborah Project is seeking documents that its legal director, Lori Lowenthal Marcus, said will reveal whether the school districts have adopted an “overtly anti-Israel, antisemitic and anti-Zionist teaching program.”

The Pennsylvania-based Deborah Project filed lawsuits against the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District (MVLA) on June 7 in Santa Clara County Superior Court and the Hayward Unified School District on May 5 in Alameda County Superior Court.

Marcus told J. in an interview last week that her law firm filed the suits because Zionism is a “foundational belief of Judaism,” and that direct attacks on the Jewish state in a classroom amount to antisemitism.

The longstanding debate over ethnic studies in California traces back to 2016 when the Legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to craft a model curriculum that would examine ethnic identities, focusing on people of color. In 2019, the department released the first draft of what is known as the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum to serve as a guide for high schools across the state.

A number of Jewish community groups, as well as liberal lawmakers, were outraged at the draft because it omitted the history of Jews in America, maligned Israel and did not meaningfully discuss antisemitism.

Since then, pro-Israel and Jewish groups have lobbied, with success, to remove references in the curriculum to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and to cut a controversial Palestinian rap lyric that implied Israel controls the media, among other edits. The state Board of Education approved the final version of the model curriculum in 2021.

Still, some independent consulting groups, most prominently, the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, insist that a more radical version of the material — which sometimes includes criticism of Israel, as well as of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism and other concepts — belongs in high school ethnic studies courses.

An ethnic studies course will be required for graduation by 2029, but no state law requires schools to use the approved model curriculum.

The Deborah Project’s lawsuit against the Mountain View–Los Altos district seeks to compel the school district to comply with a California Public Records Act request from February. The law firm is seeking documents that it believes fall into the more radical left-wing camp.

The curriculum should be free of all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, which is an enduring form of bigotry and racism.

The records are connected to Acosta Educational Partnership, a consulting group whose hiring was approved by the school board in 2022 to provide ethnic studies training for Mountain View–Los Altos teachers. Lia Rensin, a parent who circulated a petition questioning the school board’s decision, said the group promotes a “victimhood, oppression-based curriculum.”

The Deborah Project filed the public records request with the district on Feb. 23. The MVLA district sent an email on March 29 that, according to the lawsuit, “failed to state whether it had disclosable records, let alone to identify when those records would be produced.”

The advocacy law firm is trying to learn more about the teacher training and alleges the school district is violating the state public records act by ignoring its requests seeking records related to topics such as “ethnic studies,” “Zionism,” “Zionists,” “Israel,” “Palestine,” “Palestinians,” “Arabs” and “Arab-Americans.”

According to the Palo Alto-based Daily Post, the district paid Acosta Educational Partnership $45,000 for the training. The Deborah Project’s lawsuit notes AEP’s employment of Samia Shoman, an activist who works with the Berkeley-based Teach Palestine project and the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium and who helped craft the controversial first draft of the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.

The district terminated its agreement with Acosta Educational Partnership in March after more than 400 parents in the school district signed the petition.

“We want to ensure that the MVLA’s Ethnic Studies benefits all students by exposing them to accurate, unbiased information,” the petition stated. “The curriculum should be free of all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, which is an enduring form of bigotry and racism.”

Phil Faillace, the school board president, declined to comment.

“It is a long and well established practice of the District not to authorize anyone other than attorneys representing the District to speak on its behalf about matters pending litigation,” Faillace said in an email.

In its lawsuit against the Hayward Unified School District, the Deborah Project is likewise requesting that the school district comply with the state public records act. The law firm is seeking to learn what is “actually being taught … relating to the subject of Ethnic Studies in general, and about the Jewish commitment to Zionism, and Israeli-Americans, in particular.”

That lawsuit, filed following the Deborah Project’s request for records in January, comes after the Hayward district signed a $35,000 contract last year with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium to help implement ethnic studies in the district. The consortium had published and then deleted a scathing anti-Israel statement on its website.