SACRAMENTO – California will require students to complete an ethnic study course to complete high school under a bill signed by Gavin Newsom on Friday, and it is believed to be the first state to mandate such courses.
The new law comes after a year in which California leaders and activists focused more on racist justice following the May 2020 police assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It also comes as conservatives nationwide have taken issue with K-12 lessons on systemic racism and protested at school board meetings against “critical race theory”.
High school students will not be required to take the exams courses before 2029, while schools will be required to offer ethnic studies courses starting in 2025, giving district and education officials time to fully develop courses. The curriculum has been the subject of intense debate as some ethnic groups have raised concerns about how their history will be taught.
Newsom’s office on Friday pointed to research from Stanford University showing that ethnic studies “help expand educational opportunities in schools, teach students about the different communities that make up California, and increase academic engagement and achievement.”
The state took several years to develop a model plan for ethnic studies and drew criticism from the Legislative Jewish Assembly, which said the first draft left out their full history. Schools will still be able to locally develop their own plan under Assembly Proposal 101.
The bill asks districts to consider the “lengthy, thorough, deliberate and inclusive process” that the State Board of Education undertook to create a framework for curriculum, but allows schools to develop their own plan if approved by a local school board , which are subject to public consultation.
The state’s framework for ethnic surveys, approved in March, promotes “a social consciousness” and will address “institutionalized benefit systems” and forms of bigotry including anti-blackness, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The author of the bill, Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), has repeatedly pushed the law on ethnic studies to no avail. Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year, saying that while he agreed with the mission, he had concerns that the curriculum remained “insufficiently balanced” after concerns from Jewish and Arab-American organizations.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown also vetoed a trial in 2018, saying that while he valued ethnic studies, schools can already offer it on their own without a mandate.
The long delay in implementation reflects the potential logistical and political challenges of developing courses and mandating it for exams. The bill “provides a number of precautionary measures to ensure that courses will be free of bias or bigotry and appropriate for all students,” Newsom officials said in a statement.
“I want to recognize the countless young people, high school and college students, teachers and professors who have organized, demonstrated, boycotted classes and been on hunger strike to demand a fairer and more inclusive education system,” Medina said in a statement. “The signing of AB 101 today is a step in the long struggle for equal education for all students.”