Less than one in four California kids are proficient in math and less than one in three are proficient in reading, based on federal education standards, which means that 4.5 million kids are below grade-level competency in one or more subjects. This abysmal statistic is for all California schools, so you can imagine just how bad performance is at the state’s worst schools. Forty-four of California’s poorest-performing public schools are in Riverside County, where California’s school superintendent Tony Thurmond traveled earlier this month as the state’s Department of Education (DOE) launched an investigation into one of the county’s school districts.  

But neither Thurmond’s visit nor the DOE’s investigation are about failing schools or had anything to do with the deficient performance of the state’s K–12 education system more broadly. The Temecula school district that was the subject of Thurmond’s visit and the DOE investigation is among the top 15 percent of school districts statewide, one in which 55 percent of students are proficient in math and 69 percent are proficient in reading. Both proficiency levels are well above state averages.

The reason for Thurmond’s visit and the DOE investigation is that Temecula’s school board, by a 3–2 vote, objected to an elementary school social studies curriculum because it included an optional discussion about former San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California.

Milk served less than a year of his political term, as he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by former city supervisor Dan White, who had recently resigned from his position; Moscone had rescinded his offer to take White back as a city supervisor, in part due to Milk’s recommendation against White. So while 4.5 million children lack proficiency in math or reading, California governor Gavin Newsom, Rob Bonta (the state’s attorney general), and the DOE are playing culture politics rather than confronting a failing education system that spent over $128 billion in fiscal year 2022–23.

The Temecula education board’s objection to the curriculum may not have received attention from Thurmond and the DOE had Joseph Komrosky, the board’s president and a professor at Mt. San Antonio College, not referenced Milk as a “pedophile,” citing a sexual relationship that Milk had with a 16-year-old male when Milk was 33 years old. The relationship is described in a favorable 1982 biography of Milk

Following Komrosky’s comment, Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta asked the Temecula school board “to provide information regarding its process and decision-making” related to this decision by June 22.

Newsom stated, “California is closely watching the actions of malicious actors seeking to ban books, whitewash history and demonize the LGBTQ+ community in Temecula and across the state,” Newsom said. “If the law is violated, there will be repercussions.”

In their joint statement, Bonta added, “We urge the Board to adhere to the FAIR Act’s provisions and provide a comprehensive social sciences curriculum that reflects our diverse state and nation. This should include accurate representations of historical figures like Harvey Milk and not be influenced by personal bias.”

Newsom and Bonta are referencing California’s FAIR Education Act, which took effect in 2012. The act requires that school instruction accurately and equitably portray the racial and cultural diversity of society and demonstrate the contributions of minority groups.

However, the FAIR Act provides no state mandates regarding what is taught. Rather, curricula are developed and approved at the local level by districts and school boards, with input from parents and teachers, to determine what is appropriate for different grade levels.

Newsom followed up his official statement with Bonta by calling Komrosky “ignorant and offensive” and tweeting, “This isn’t Texas or Florida. In the Golden State, our kids have the freedom to learn. Congrats Mr. Komrosky you have our attention. Stay tuned.”

Since Newsom’s tweets appeared, Komrosky explained in a podcast that he has received at least one death threat and several personal attacks regarding his position as a college professor. Komrosky answered Newsom and Bonta, explaining that his objection to the curriculum was not because Milk was gay but rather because Milk had a sexual relationship with a minor.

I expect nothing further will come from the state’s legal threats or of the DOE’s investigation, because the very broad language within the FAIR Act gives local districts and school boards considerable latitude in making choices to satisfy the law’s requirements. In other words, no matter how one views Harvey Milk, there is nothing in the act that compels the Temecula school district to include Milk, or any other individual, in their social studies program for elementary kids.

So, just what was the purpose of all this? It was never about advancing learning outcomes or about Harvey Milk. Instead, this was an opportunity that was just too good to pass up for California politicians to remind the state’s Democratic voter base of the danger of the enemy within, who in this case was one individual, an elected school board president who called Harvey Milk a pedophile. In return, Newsom has called Komrosky “malicious,” “ignorant,” “offensive,” and a person who is “demonizing the LGBTQ+ community.” Mission accomplished.

California’s education policies cause substantial harm to low- and middle-income households, particularly those living in areas with poorly performing schools and who cannot afford private schools. Within Riverside Country’s 44 failing schools are approximately 22,000 students who suffer enormously because the state is unwilling to implement the necessary reforms to improve learning outcomes. This unwillingness is based on a political relationship in which teachers’ and other education unions support incumbent politicians and favorable political initiatives. In 2018, the state’s largest teachers’ union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), spent over $50 million on political campaigns. Those receiving maximum funding from CTA include Gavin Newsom and Tony Thurman.

Given the state’s awful education record, voters may be inclined to support new candidates who are willing to disrupt the existing quid pro quo between education unions and the politicians they support. And this is why it was so fortuitous for state political and education leaders that Joseph Komrosky came along, to deflect from a $128 billion school system that has failed California students for decades.

Newsom tweeted that California kids “have the freedom to learn.” But “freedom to learn” and “learning” are two very different things, and the state’s gross failures in this regard fall on Newsom and the rest of California’s education system.

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