The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District's board voted this week to formally approve an ethnic studies course for all freshmen starting this fall, but the decision was not without controversy and disagreement among the elected trustees.
The board voted 4-0 at a Monday, June 5, meeting to approve the course, with board President Phil Faillace abstaining.
The high school district has been piloting an ethnic studies course this school year and plans to make it a required, yearlong class for all ninth graders starting in the 2023-24 school year. That's ahead of a state requirement for districts to offer a one-semester ethnic studies class beginning in the 2025-26 school year.
For multiple years, the MVLA board has discussed adding an ethnic studies requirement, but the plans generated particular controversy in recent months as the final decision neared.
Some community members have opposed the course, with concerns ranging from claims that the district would be indoctrinating students with "Marxist ideology" to detailed critiques of specific lessons and worksheets. Others have backed the class as an important opportunity to teach about race and ethnicity in a way that brings students together and promotes mutual understanding.
The district held a public comment period on the ethnic studies course, with 18 people submitting written responses. The board has also held multiple detailed reviews of the curriculum over the past several months, culminating in Monday's meeting, when the course was formally approved.
Faillace and fellow trustee Sanjay Dave both raised concerns at Monday's meeting about whether the class will offer a balanced perspective on controversial issues. The two trustees said that while presentations by the district's ethnic studies teachers at recent meetings were positive, they had concerns about the written course materials that the district has published.
"I'm hearing that balance, but I don't always see it in the material that was presented to us," Dave said.
He raised objections to the definition of "color blindness" that was included in a course document, as well as a lesson about systems of power within the school district. Faillace objected to the definition of racism that was in one of the documents and how capitalism was handled in the course, getting into back-and-forths with other trustees on these topics.
One issue that cropped up during the meeting was what the written course materials actually said. Associate Superintendent Teri Faught said that some objections to the course were based on outdated documents, which the district had updated.
Dave told the Voice after the meeting that he had mostly been basing his comments on material that the board reviewed at prior study sessions, and that those documents have largely been replaced. Faillace similarly said that the definitions he was objecting to are no longer listed online, although he said that another lesson he had issues with is still posted.
The other three trustees largely defended the course. Board member Catherine Vonnegut said that it isn't possible for written course materials to encompass everything that a teacher covers in class.
"You cannot possibly represent what you'd actually be saying in real life with so few words to start with, so that part doesn't really bother me," Vonnegut said.
If there are particular hot-button issues that need to be carefully addressed or problems with phrasing, Vonnegut argued that teachers can iteratively refine the course over time.
Trustee Thida Cornes similarly said that the important part is what teachers actually say in the classroom, and that these educators have shown the board that they will present a balanced perspective.
Board member Esmeralda Ortiz praised the course, noting that it included a diversity of sources and pushed students to think critically.
"I feel confident and I also trust the teachers who presented to us multiple times," Ortiz said.
Faillace told administrators that he was unclear whether the board was being asked to approve the curriculum documents themselves or only a broader framework document.
"We're being asked to approve the course, which is the framework," Superintendent Nellie Meyer said. "The specific units and lessons are beneath that – so you're not being asked to approve every specific lesson."
Dave ultimately voted in favor of approving the course, noting that he felt he could move forward given that the board wasn't being asked to sign off on all of the specific materials. Faillace abstained and said that he will "remain hopeful" that the district would arrive at better written materials for the course in the future.