LOS ANGELES — After more than five years of intense scrutiny and effort, California on Friday became the first state to make ethnic studies a required class for high school graduation to help students understand the past and present struggles and contributions of Black, Asian, Latino, Native/Indigenous Americans and other groups that have experienced racism and marginalization in America.
Although critics from across the political spectrum remain, the bill garnered overwhelming support in the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had vetoed a nearly identical measure last year. At that time, he called for more changes to the draft of a state curriculum guide for ethnic studies — to make it, he said, balanced, fair and “inclusive of all communities.”
Ethnic studies will “help expand educational opportunities in schools, teach students about the diverse communities that comprise California and boost academic engagement and attainment for students,” a statement from the governor’s office said.
The signing was lauded by Democratic Assemblyman Jose Medina of Riverside, who authored the bill.
“The inclusion of ethnic studies in the high school curriculum is long overdue,” Medina said. “Students cannot have a full understanding of the history of our state and nation without the inclusion of the contributions and struggles of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. ” He called the approval “one step in the long struggle for equal education for all students.”
Ethnic studies in California classrooms will move forward as a compromise between advocates who wanted an activist, anti-imperialist approach and those who asserted that the first version was filled with radical ideology, obscure academic jargon and bias against capitalism.
Alterations toned down these elements and also added the experiences of Jewish, Armenian and Sikh communities in the U.S.
With the issue seemingly settled at the state level, debate could now move to schools and school districts — and become entangled in a volatile political divide over critical race theory, and the extent to which it is incorporated in the state’s ethnic studies curriculum. 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 to analyze how race and racism are enmeshed in institutional and systemic inequities in America. A footnote in the state’s ethnic studies teaching guide states that critical race theory “acknowledges that racism is embedded within systems and institutions.”
Critical race theory is rarely mentioned in the teaching guide, but critic Williamson M. Evers said the overall model curriculum is “permeated” with content that makes it “racially divisive and burdened by faddish 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 portrayal of American culture and institutions through a racially divisive prism of oppressor and victim.
Individual school districts will have the task of developing courses using the model curriculum, which was approved last March. Educators can pick and choose elements of this teaching guide to include in a local course but are expected to be faithful to the main ideas of this framework.
Students in Glendale, with its large Armenian American population, for example, could study the Armenian immigrant experience in that community and examine historic links to the Armenian genocide in World War I by forces of the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey. (Turkey’s government rejects the genocide label).
Under the law, students in the Class of 2030, who will start high school in the fall of 2026, must pass at least a single one-semester course. And, by the fall of 2025, all public high schools will have to offer such a class.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber said the successful push for ethnic studies sets California apart.
“At a time when some states are retreating from an accurate discussion of our history, I am proud that California continues to lead in its teaching of ethnic studies,” Weber said. “This subject 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.”
Ultimately, many California ethnic studies critics were at least mollified. Some supporters, meanwhile, felt they had no viable alternative but to accept an 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 the Americas before the arrival of colonizers from Europe.
The ethnic studies bill had overwhelming support — albeit all from Democrats — in both houses of the Legislature.
“Requiring ethnic studies in high schools is an integral part of cultivating a classroom environment that is accepting of diversity,” supporters from the Legislature said in a joint statement when the bill passed last month. The statement of support was provided by that body’s five “diversity caucuses,” which represent, respectively, lawmakers who identify with and evaluate legislation through the lens of Asian Pacific Islanders, Black people, Jews, Latinos and Native Americans.
“It is vital for young people to learn about their history. It is also important for them to feel like they can contribute to their communities in positive ways,” the joint statement read.
Such a coalition would not have been possible when the first version of the model curriculum was under review in 2019.
Supporters of Israel were troubled by about a dozen pages in the 578-page guide, as well as by its glossary, which defined Islamophobia but not antisemitism. Then guide included what critics saw as an overly positive characterization of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as BDS, which advocates for exerting economic pressure on Israel to come to terms with Palestinians. Sample topics for coursework included the “Call to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel” and “Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico.”
Other groups complained about being left out entirely.
The revised curriculum now includes two sample lessons about the experience of Jews in America. Arab Americans are included with a sample lesson titled “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 also must acknowledge that the curriculum which passed in March 2021 did fall short and leave many other marginalized communities behind,” said Pritpal Kaur, education director of the Sikh Coalition.
Another change: A glossary with terms developed largely at the college level, such as cisheteropatriarchy (“a system of power that is based on the dominance of cisheterosexual men”) was deleted.
And language directly associating capitalism with oppression also was struck from the revision.
The final teaching guide is too diluted in the view of those who wrote the original draft. They were not invited to take part in the revision and have disassociated themselves from it.
Even so, a leader of that group applauded the new graduation requirement.
“I welcome the requirement,” said Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana/o studies at Cal State Northridge. “But I am also disturbed by the political climate that it has created.”
Two provisions of the bill bother her 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 requires that course materials be provided for public review, including a public hearing, before being approved at a later meeting.
Montaño said these two provisions could become a recipe for litigation and unruly board meetings at which educators could become targets for intimidation from the uninformed or hostile. Already, she noted, opposing ethnic studies has become a rallying point for the political right.
Earlier this year, protesters descended on the Los Alamitos Unified School District to complain that a proposed ethnic studies class and social justice learning resources would spread “hate for America and all America stands for.” Others strongly challenged those claims, and the Board of Education eventually approved the learning materials.
“It’s high time that we addressed the demographic imperative,” said Montaño, who noted that the battle over ethnic studies courses began in the 1960s. “In California, 70% of students are students of color. They go through 12 years of an education — taking everything from mathematics to biology — and yet it’s taken 53 years to get a single course in something that is relevant to their own personal historical trajectory.”
Even before the statewide requirement, an increasing number of schools and districts were offering ethnic studies, and some, including Los Angeles Unified, already had made the class a local graduation requirement.
Assemblyman Medina, a former ethnic studies teacher, said the new requirement, along with the revised teaching guide, embodies reasonable compromise.
“As we’ve seen in this lengthy process, there are criticisms from different sides, from the left and the right,” Medina said. “This wasn’t an easy task, but at the end of the day, in the adopted version, I say that it’s a model curriculum that we can all be proud of.”