Vote away the gay

California’s new FAIR Education Act already in jeopardy

A recently inked law that would require state schools to teach the gay, lesbian and transgender civil-rights movement already faces possible referendum before even going into effect.

California’s new Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month and set to become law on the first of the year, adds GLBT individuals—plus Asian Pacific Islanders and people with disabilities—to a list of groups that should be included in California classrooms’ social-studies and history curriculum.

But a referendum’s proponents, including Paulo Sibaja, who is backed by the Capitol Resource Institute, the Pacific Justice Institute, and the Traditional Values Coalition, can stop the law if they gather a half-million signatures by October 12. This would put the FAIR Education Act on the ballot for voter approval next year.

And, as one might guess, it’s not Asian Pacific Islanders and people with disabilities who are causing the problem.

According to UC Davis School of Law professor Courtney Joslin, the law is a simple clarification of laws that already exists. “[A 2007 bill] made clear a number of issues on nondiscrimination in the California Education Code,” she explained, “and it included nondiscrimination on LGBT issues.”

The Legislature also passed explicit nondiscrimination protections for GLBT students in 2000, Joslin noted. “The discrimination obligation has been clear for over a decade,” she said, “and many schools … have been making sure that their curriculum reflects the diversity of the state.”

But the Capitol Resource Institute, which has attempted to place a referendum for GLBT education legislation on the ballot before and failed, is optimistic about getting enough signatures this time around.

“We’re going to supplement the volunteer efforts with paid signature gatherers,” explained Sibaja, director of communications and legislation at CRI. “We’ve had an outpouring, a groundswell of folks who say, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this.’ This is independents, Blue Dog Democrats, all kinds of people who are outraged.”

The press materials from CRI, as well as from other organizations that have signed on, make no mention of any group other than GLBT people, nor do they take into consideration that the law in place already encourages teachers to include previously under-represented groups, including GLBT people, in social studies and history curricula.

“What [the FAIR Education Act] requires is that textbooks and curriculum need to be more inclusive and include the contributions of LGBT, Asian Pacific Islanders and disabled people,” said Rebecca Rosa, a professor in the UC Davis School of Education. “What people don’t realize is that this is not very far from what it already says in the [state] curriculum.”

Rosa cited two sections of the state Education Code that already include the treatment of minority and marginalized groups, but added that even though teachers can already include these groups, “they might be reticent given the current backlash.”

“What the FAIR Education Act does is make it explicit that teachers can include this,” she said.

Of course, given the pressure to meet the criteria for standardized tests, what’s taught in social studies and history course might be an entirely moot argument. Because of the pressure to “teach toward the test,” according to Rosa, many schools are only teaching social studies and history in small amounts, at the end of the day.

“Even if this law is on paper, not much is being taught in the classroom,” she said.