Curriculum isn't set for gay history lessons required by new California law

A controversial state law approved last July amid heated debate isn't likely to affect California classrooms any time soon.

The Fair Education Act adds lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, as well as people with disabilities, to existing state law that requires that the contributions of women and minorities be taught in California social science classes. It also prohibits materials that reflect adversely on people because of race, gender or other characteristics.

The law officially took effect Jan. 1. But the California Department of Education hasn't laid out a companion curriculum, and state officials say they are leaving it up to school districts to determine how to comply.

While some local districts are working to design new curriculum, many others are simply waiting for the state's next adoption of new history and social science textbooks, scheduled for 2015. School officials say they have received little direction and have few resources – financial and otherwise – to do much else.

"Right now we don't have any funding to do the curriculum we need," said Christopher Hoffman, superintendent of the El Dorado Union High School District. "We aren't going to add anything."

Hoffman said the district will wait for the next round of textbooks or direction from the state.

Even the state is waiting for new books. The Department of Education has no plans to check that districts are complying with the law until new textbooks are available, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum frameworks for the department.

Until then, he said, "it is up to the districts to bring themselves into compliance."

The new textbooks won't be available for years. Citing the ongoing budget crisis, the Legislature halted the adoption of new textbooks until 2015 and suspended a rule that districts must buy those new books within two years of their adoption.

"Of course, in a perfect world we would have sufficient funds to implement this with reprinting textbooks immediately," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who authored Senate Bill 48. "But that is not the case. So, to ensure that SB48 was not held in appropriations, we had to write it as we did."

Leno said school districts should use supplemental materials to meet the requirements while they are waiting for revised texts.

"School districts are required to put it into the lesson plans with or without the textbook changes," he said.

But state guidance is scarce. The Department of Education directs anyone with questions to a fact sheet on its website that answers seven "frequently asked" questions about the law. It says teachers, schools and districts must decide what content is covered and at what grade levels.

Elk Grove Unified is one of the few districts contacted by The Bee that has devised a detailed plan to teach curriculum based on the law. Its leaders brought together teachers, community members and parents months ago to draft a guide, said Anne Zeman, director of curriculum for Elk Grove Unified.

Students will be in 11th grade before they see any substantive changes to their coursework. At that point, if the guide is approved by the school board, the curriculum will include gays and lesbians in discussion of the civil rights movement and other events in American history.

Mentions of gay history in younger grades will remain scant. The curriculum guide recommends that teachers include a sentence about treating all people with respect during coursework on the 20th century in fourth grade and that eighth graders be told that many of the founders of settlement houses, a reformist movement in the 1880s, were gay.

"This is something that fits in well with the study of civil rights," Zeman said of the new requirements. "It is always our intention to promote respect for all people and groups."

In Folsom Cordova Unified, teachers have been instructed to use supplemental materials and current events to comply with the law until new textbooks are available, said Janie DeArcos, assistant superintendent. No official curriculum has been adopted.

Whatever a district decides to do, it will be watched carefully.

Brad Dacus, director of the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, said his organization will offer free legal counsel to school districts "sensitive to parental rights," as well as to parents. The group is prepared to sue districts that overstep the law.

"We will be looking aggressively up and down the state of California for school districts that go beyond the boundaries of this legislation and step on the rights of parents," he said.

The Pacific Justice Institute and other groups have filed a total of five initiatives to change the law. They recently joined together in support of one, the Stop48 initiative, Dacus said.

Equality California, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for gay rights, and other proponents of the new law also will be keeping an eye on districts to ensure they are following the letter of the law.

Rebekah Orr, spokeswoman for Equality California, said her group will provide resources and training to educators to help them develop curriculum.

"We will be monitoring it," she said, adding that her group, like the Pacific Justice Institute, is prepared to go to court if districts fail to comply.

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