By Dina Martin
In an effort to build a more tolerant atmosphere in the classroom and curb an epidemic of student bullying, schools in California will now be required to include the historic contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and people with disabilities in their social studies instructional materials.
The new law amends the California Education Code, which prohibits discriminatory instruction and materials against certain categories of people. Specifically, SB 48, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), adds the roles and contributions of GLBT and disabled persons to the current list of underrepresented ethnic and cultural groups already included in social science instruction. Co-sponsored by Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last July and went into effect in January.
“Given that the Education Code already requires that the role and contributions of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, females, and other communities be included in the social studies curriculum, it seemed the role and contributions of LGBT and disabled were being censored,” Leno says.
During hearings on the bill last spring, Leno and others pointed to research that indicates students who learn about the LGBT community find their school environments more accepting of LGBT youth.
“Children have a right to feel safe when they come to school. Currently, there is a heightened severity of bullying that is an epidemic,” Leno says. “We’re failing our kids.”
The bill also prohibits teachers from leading, or a school from sponsoring, any activity that promotes discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.
In addition, the bill requires the State Board of Education and local governing boards to adopt textbooks and instructional materials that accurately portray these groups.
The bill was the focus of heated opposition by the Campaign for Children and Families and so-called parents’ rights groups, who maintained the bill would promote sexual indoctrination and create a separate GLBT social class. Opponents of the law failed at an attempt to collect signatures to qualify a referendum to overturn the bill last year, but are circulating petitions to place an initiative to repeal it on the November ballot.
C. Scott Miller, co-chair of CTA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues Committee and a member of the Santa Ana Educators Association, called their concerns “ridiculous.”
“This has nothing to do with sex. It was designed to reduce bullying by showing role models to students. We do know that role modeling works. When students see that a variety of groups have made contributions, it creates a more tolerant atmosphere for everyone in school,” Miller says.
The bill has forged a coalition between the GLBT and disabled communities, which are working together to protect the law and to develop resources for teaching.
“Learning the contributions made by activists of the disability rights movement is essential to a full understanding of our history, just as an understanding of the civil rights movement and the pioneers of women’s suffrage and the LGBT rights movement are an essential part of our history lessons,” says Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. “The FAIR Education Act truly is a step in the right direction, and it’s important for us to make sure that this landmark victory that promotes understanding in our schools is upheld because it’s time for our history classes and textbooks to accurately reflect the rich and diverse history of California.”
Don Romesburg, a Sonoma State University professor of women’s and gender studies who was a consultant for the Gay-Straight Alliance on the bill, says it’s been inspirational to see how well the disability folk and the GLBT communities are working together. “Both groups are groups that are seen as unwelcome and unwanted. It’s fascinating to see how much they overlap. Ultimately, education is about teaching young people to become citizens, and that’s what this work is about.”
As a result of budget cuts, however, the state process for the development and review of K-8 instructional materials is on hold, and adoption of new material may not come before 2015. When it does occur, the adoption of new textbooks that include contributions by GLBT people is likely to have a ripple effect around the country, since California’s huge textbook market drives the rest of the country. Miller predicts it will make for interesting discussion in states that haven’t yet adopted a law similar to SB 48. In this way, California once again breaks new ground.
Despite the absence of textbooks, the law remains in effect, and school districts will be expected to comply with its requirements. Decisions on materials, however, will be up to the individual school districts. The new law does not dictate when, where and how much time should be devoted to incorporating these new groups into lessons.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out what it all means,” Miller says. “Materials have to be historically accurate. You can’t just assume someone is GLBT, or a minority, or disabled. But this allows us the opportunity to present the positive contributions these groups have made.”