✅ Ethnic studies to graduate

A history class at Piner High School in Santa Rosa on August 14, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A history class at Piner High School in Santa Rosa on August 14, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

By Joe Hong

WHAT THE BILL WOULD DO

This is the third attempt by Democratic Assemblymember Jose Medina of Riverside to require ethnic studies for all California public school students, and this time he succeeded. AB 101 makes ethnic studies a graduation requirement. The law will go into effect by the 2024-25 school year, beginning with the class of 2030. School districts could either develop their own lessons or use the model curriculum developed by the state board of education.

WHO SUPPORTS IT

Pro-equity advocacy groups, teachers unions and a handful of larger school districts that already have ethnic studies courses. Many education researchers say students, especially those of color, perform better in school if they see themselves in what they’re being taught. Experts also say that requiring teachers to engage with historic oppression and varied student backgrounds could prompt them to rethink the way they teach other subjects like literature, science and math.

WHO’S OPPOSED

The editorial board at the Los Angeles Times opposed the bill because it provides too much flexibility for local districts to design their own curricula that could deviate from the state’s own model curriculum. Thousands from California’s Jewish community signed a petition opposing the bill because it would allow districts to use a previous draft of the model curriculum that has been criticized for containing anti-Semitic content. Some parents across the state continue to fight against ethnic studies, erroneously conflating the course with critical race theory, while other parents have called the curriculum divisive, fearing it could ratchet up racial tensions.

WHY IT MATTERS

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed this idea last year, saying the state needed to modify a much-criticized model curriculum developed by the California Department of Education. Jewish groups, for instance, condemned previous versions for an alleged bias towards Palestine. The state board assuaged some critics by approving a significantly revised curriculum in March. If the curriculum attains its goal, it would create a more inclusive California school system.

GOVERNOR’S CALL:

Newsom signed the bill on Oct. 8. In a signing message, he said: “Ethnic studies courses enable students to learn their own stories, and those of their classmates, and a number of studies have shown that these courses boost student achievement over the long run – especially among students of color. I appreciate that the legislation provides a number of guardrails to ensure that courses will be free from bias or bigotry and appropriate for all students. The bill also expresses the Legislature’s intent that courses should not include portions of the initial draft curriculum that had been rejected by the Instructional Quality Commission due to concerns related to bias, bigotry, and discrimination.”

On Oct. 6, he also launched a Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education.