After more than five years of intense scrutiny and efforts, California on Friday became the first state to make ethnic studies a mandatory high school graduation class to help students understand past and present struggles and contributions from black, Asian, Latino, Native / Native Americans and other groups who have experienced racism and marginalization in America.
Although there are still critics from across the political spectrum, the bill received overwhelming support in the legislation and was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, who last year had vetoed an almost identical measure. At the time, he called for a revised and completed state curriculum guide for ethnic studies – one that would be, he said, balanced, fair and “inclusive for all communities.”
The revised teaching guide was completed and approved in March by the State Board of Education. The requirement would only apply to those educated in 2030.
“Ethnic study courses allow students to learn their own stories – and those of their classmates,” Newsom said in a signature statement. A press release from his office predicted ethnic studies will “help expand educational opportunities in schools, teach students about the diverse communities that comprise California, and increase academic engagement and achievement for students.”
The signature was praised by Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), the author of the bill. Medina called the new requirement “long ago” and “a step in the long struggle for equal education for all students.”
Ethnic studies in California’s classrooms will move forward as a compromise between advocates who wanted an activist, anti-imperialist approach and those who argued that the first version of the state education guide was filled with radical ideology, vague academic jargon, and bias toward capitalism.
Changes toned down these elements and also added the experiences of Jewish, Armenian and Sikh communities in the United States
As the issue was apparently settled at the state level, debate could now move to schools and school districts – and become entangled in a fleeting political divide over critical race theory and the extent to which it is incorporated into the state’s curriculum for ethnic studies. School boards must hold public hearings on the courses they plan to offer.
Critical race theory was first developed at the university level as an academic lens through which one could analyze how race and racism are involved in institutional and systemic inequalities in America. A footnote in the state’s ethnic studies teaching guide says critical race theory “recognizes that racism is embedded in systems and institutions.”
Critical race theory is rarely mentioned in the teaching guide, but critic Williamson M. Evers said the overall model plan was “imbued” with content that makes it “racially divisive and burdened by fadish ideology.” According to Evers, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and some other opponents, the problematic issues include a reliance on the concepts of critical race theory, leading to a portrayal of American culture and institutions through a racist divisive prism of oppressor and victim.
Newsom did not see it that way.
“America is shaped by our common history, much of it painful and etched with terrible injustice,” the governor said in his signature statement. Students “must understand the full history of our country if we expect them to one day build a more just society.”
Some school districts will be tasked with developing courses using the state’s teaching guide, which is called a “model plan”. Teachers can pick and choose items to include in a local course, but are expected to be true to the main ideas of this framework.
For example, students in Glendale with its large Armenian American population could study the Armenian immigrant experience in this community.
By law, students in the 2030 class starting high school in the fall of 2026 must pass at least one semester semester. And in the fall of 2025, all public high schools must offer such a class.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a longtime professor of Africana studies and a former member of the Instructional Quality Commission who reviewed the model plan, said the successful push for ethnic studies separates California.
“At a time when some states are withdrawing from an accurate discussion of our history, I am proud that California continues to lead in its teaching of ethnic studies,” Weber said. “This topic not only has academic benefits, but also has the capacity to build character as students learn how people from their own or different backgrounds face challenges, overcome them, and make contributions to American society.”
Even before the state requirement, an increasing number of schools and districts offered ethnic studies, and some, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, had already made the class an exam requirement.
In the end, many ethnic studies in California critics were at least diminished by changes in educational guidelines or legislation. These included Jewish and pro-Israel advocates who argued that the original draft model plan was anti-Israel and defined Islamophobia but not anti-Semitism.
The latest version deletes the lessons and references encountered by some Jewish groups.
When the bill was passed with overwhelming approval in both the Assembly and the Senate, the legislature’s five “diversity caucasus” – legislators who identify with and evaluate legislation sensitive to Asians and Pacific Islanders, blacks, Jews, Latinos and Indians – issued a joint statement of support. .
“Requirements for ethnic studies in high schools are an integral part of cultivating a classroom environment that accepts diversity,” the joint statement said.
The revised curriculum now contains two examples of lessons about the experience of the Jews in America. Arab Americans are included in a pilot course entitled “An Introduction to Arab American Studies.” Another lesson is “The Sikh American Community in California.”
A Sikh representative said the changes represent a step in the right direction.
“While this is an extremely positive development for the California Sikh community, we must also recognize that the curriculum adopted in March 2021 was lacking and left many other marginalized communities,” said Pritpal Kaur, Education Director of the Sikh Coalition.
Another change: A glossary of terms that is largely developed at the college level, e.g. Cisheteropatriarchy (“a system of power based on the dominance of heterosexual men”) was erased.
And languages directly linking capitalism with oppression were also affected by the revision.
But those who wrote the original draft say the final teaching guide is too diluted. They protested the extent of the expansion beyond the four groups that have traditionally been the focus of ethnic studies: Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, and indigenous peoples – those who lived in America before the colonizers arrived from Europe. They were not invited to participate in the audit and have distanced themselves from it.
Still, a leader of that group welcomed the new graduation requirement.
“It’s high time we tackled the demographic imperative,” said Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana / o studies at Cal State Northridge. She noted that the struggle for ethnic studies courses began in the 1960s. “In California, 70% of students are students of color. They complete 12 years of education – taking everything from math to biology – and yet it has taken 53 years to get a single course in something relevant to their own personal historical trajectory. “
Two provisions in the bill annoy Montaño and others who favored the original draft of the teaching guide.
The bill specifically advises that school districts avoid using anything that was removed from the original draft. The new law also requires that course material be submitted for public review, including a public hearing, before it is approved at a later meeting.
Montaño said these two provisions could become a recipe for lawsuits and unruly board meetings where educators could become targets of intimidation from uninformed or hostile critics. Already, she noted that conflicting ethnic studies have become a rallying point for the political right.
This year, protesters came down to the Los Alamitos Unified School District to complain that a proposed ethnic class and social learning resources would spread “hatred of America and all that America stands for.” Others strongly challenged these claims, and the Los Alamitos Board of Education eventually approved the teaching materials.
Newsom defended the additions that Montaño protested against.
“I appreciate that the legislation includes a number of crash barriers to ensure that courses will be free of bias or bigotry and appropriate for all students,” Newsom said in his signature statement. “The bill also expresses the legislator’s intention that courses should not include portions of the original draft curriculum that had been rejected by the Instructional Quality Commission due to concerns about bias, bigotry and discrimination.”
Assemblyman, a former teacher of ethnic studies, said the new requirement, along with the revised teaching guide, represents a reasonable compromise.
“As we have seen in this long process, there is criticism from various sides, from left and right,” Medina said. “This was not an easy task, but at the end of the day, in the adopted version, I say it’s a model plan we can all be proud of.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.