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Explaining the FAIR Education Act, AKA the LGBT History Bill

| July 8, 2011
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On Tuesday the Assembly passed the FAIR Education Act, which would require school curricula in California to include contributions by gay and lesbian Americans.

The bill, which you can read here, was sponsored by Bay Area State Senator Mark Leno and is now waiting to be signed — or not — by Governor Jerry Brown.

Yesterday I asked KQED’s education reporter, Ana Tintocalis, to explain what’s in the bill, what it’s significance is, and whether Brown might sign it. An edited transcript follows each audio clip.

Ana Tintocalis on what’s in the bill

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What would this bill do?

This bill is SB 48, commonly known as the FAIR act. It would amend the state’s education code, stating that LGBT people should be added to the state’s list of underrepresented groups in history classes. At the same time it also spells out other guidelines for underrepresented groups. The bill says textbooks and instruction should specifically include contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans.

The LGBT component is the thing getting the most press. Is that because that is specifically called out in the bill or is it because it’s more controversial?

More of the emphasis is on LGBT historical contributions. The other part of the bill is basically spelling out, “let’s not refer to African Americans in history as blacks or Native Americans as Indians.”

California would be the first state in the country to allow public school kids to learn from curricula and textbooks that point out the contributions of gays and lesbians.

And it wouldn’t just be allowed, it would be mandated. Is that correct?

It’s mandated, but it’s a little tricky, because the bill says the state has to adopt textbooks and curricula that include LGBT contributions in our history, but it’s up to school districts if they want to use them and how much. So ultimately, school districts will get to decide how they go about using these teaching materials.

But the district officials I’ve spoken with say this would give them permission to talk about the topic. Even if they don’t necessarily use the textbook, they have permission to talk about the ongoing gay rights movement, about people like Harvey Milk or Walt Whitman, for example.

So currently, if a teacher does want to discuss LGBT topics in class, are they specifically disallowed or are they such hot-button issues that teachers don’t want to go there?

They’re such hot-button issues that people don’t want to go there. I think it’s really frowned upon; I think teachers feel they don’t have the authority to talk about these issues. And we’ve seen cases in school districts where a teacher gets in trouble for talking about someone like Harvey Milk. If this bill becomes law, it give educators that freedom to discuss these things in class.

On the bill’s supporters and opponents

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So who are the bill’s main opponents at this point?

Christian conservative groups and Republican lawmakers. They say this is a blatant attempt to promote what they call a homosexual agenda and to legislate morality. And they’re saying they’re not going to back down even if the bill does become law. So you still may see cases and issues come up, maybe even more so if teachers feel they have a little more freedom to talk about this topic in class.

What was the breakdown in terms of the vote? Was it Republicans versus Democrats?

Pretty much. You saw a lot of Democrats and openly gay lawmakers pushing this bill and applauding it, and conservative lawmakers really coming down on it.

And this was Mark Leno’s bill, right?

Yes, and it was co-sponsored by Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, both of which are based in San Francisco, so it very much has this Bay Area connection.

And what are the indications from Governor Brown as to whether he’ll sign it or not?

He hasn’t said whether he supports it. If he doesn’t veto it within 12 days, it automatically becomes law.

But even if it does become law, there’s a five-year moratorium placed on adopting and purchasing any new textbooks, due to budget issues. That moratorium is in place until about 2015. So you wouldn’t be seeing new adoption of textbooks for a number of years.

Explaining how teachers could implement the new curricula without new textbooks

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What is the difference between textbooks and curricula?

Textbooks are the tool, and the standards are the lesson plans and how you go about teaching something. A lot of people use teaching and curriculum interchangeably. From the textbook you can develop lesson plans, and sometimes textbooks come with curricula that teachers can then use within the classroom or structure it in ways that they feel are best for students.

If the state does pass the bill but has no money to buy textbooks, teachers could still develop their own lesson plans that tie into what they want to get across in this particular area.

Also, KQED Radio’s Forum program today featured a discussion of the bill. That show, which included San Francisco assemblymember Tom Ammiano, will be archived here later today. The page already features a lively discussion among listeners.

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Category: Education

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  • Bryan Soper

    Tim Donnelly commented that Kaiser Permanente listed sexual orientation as fluid up until the age 25. He seemed to imply that the topic of sexuality should be excluded from discussion of impressionable youth. My question to him is, does he want to encourage and support young people to explore their possible sexual orientation given his acknowledgement that sexual orientation is fluid? or does he want to discourage discussion of it to dissuade young people from making a choice to what he considers an “alternative” orientation?