In summary

The high school ethnic studies bill in the Legislature had all the stars aligned in its favor this year, so why was it defunded and implimentation delayed?

By Luis A. Alejo, Special to CalMatters

Luis A. Alejo is a former Assemblymember and Monterey County Supervisor, District1@co.monterey.ca.us.

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This year could have truly been a remarkable year in which California made an ethnic studies high school graduation requirement a reality. Instead, the bill that received approvals of the state Senate and Assembly and now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom signature, was not only completely defunded, but also unnecessarily delayed an entire decade.  

As originally written, Assembly Bill 331 by Assemblymember Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside, would have made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement by the 2024-25 school year. This would have given school districts enough time to ramp up implementation over a 4-year period. It also included the funding needed to get the bill off the ground.   

The bill, however, came under controversy last summer when the first draft of a state model-high school curriculum on ethnic studies was released pursuant to legislation that I authored as a member of the Assembly in 2016. AB 331 was then intentionally parked in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s “suspense file” to allow revisions of the curriculum. 

On Aug. 20, the Senate Appropriations Committee held its hearing on the bill and Chair Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from the La Cañada Flintridge, announced its approval with several amendments. I learned that the bill’s implementation date got delayed, that charter schools were exempted, and most disappointing, a new provision was added stating that the bill would “become operative only upon an appropriation of funds by the Legislature.”  

I was devastated. As a former Assemblymember, I know that any bill that has that language inserted is, in effect, defunded. This means that work on its implementation will not take place until the Legislature approves funding for it at some unknown, future date. 

Medina had not told me about any planned changes to the bill, so I called him to figure out why all those changes were made. He admitted that he had accepted both the delay of the bill’s implementation for one year and the defunding language as “author’s amendments.” I was outraged how the author, of what would have been a landmark bill, would agree to such debilitating language.  

I contacted legislative leaders and every member of the Latino, Black and Asian and Pacific Islander legislative caucuses that I had phone numbers for to plead with them to save the bill and correct the damage Medina inflicted on it in the remaining days of the legislative session.  

But it got worse. When the bill was put in print in its final form on Aug. 28, not only did the bill remain defunded, but the implementation delay was not a single year as Medina had told me, but rather a full decade, all the way to 2030. Any opportunity to save AB 331 was now gone as the deadline to amend the bill had passed.  

I’ve authored several landmark bills when I was a member of the Assembly and sometimes these bills need the right moment to win approval. AB 331 had all the stars aligned in its favor this year. Our country is in the middle of a reckoning on racial justice, there’s a hotly contested presidential election, the model curriculum for ethnic studies is nearly complete, and Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. There was absolutely no reason this bill couldn’t be done right. 

In 2017, Medina asked me to pass onto him my unfinished legislative proposal for an ethnic studies high school graduation requirement. After all, I drafted the first bill on the topic in 2002 as an Assembly Fellow for then-Assemblymember Manny Diaz, a Democrat from San Jose, and numerous versions when I was a member of the Assembly. But last week, I truly regretted making the choice to pass the baton to Medina. 

I now urge the governor and the Legislature to do justice to this long-awaited bill by properly funding it in next year’s budget and restoring its original implementation date so that our students don’t have to wait a full decade to benefit from it.  

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Luis Alejo is the sponsor of Assembly Bill 331 and author of Assembly Bill 2016, which created the first state model ethnic studies curriculum for high schools in California. He has also written about Latinos needing proportionate representation on the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

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