Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
A middle schooler walks by a Black History Month display on her way to class.

Sensing the timing is now right, the author of a bill that would require all students to take ethnic studies to graduate from high school is pressing Senate leaders to free up the bill and send it to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature before the end of August. The governor already has on his desk another bill that would make a course in ethnic studies a prerequisite for a California State University diploma.

Assembly Bill 331  currently would apply to the graduating class of 2025, although Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, the author, plans to amend it to apply to students entering 9th grade in the fall of 2025. That would give school districts and charter schools several years to phase in ethnic studies. But Medina and members of the Black, Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander legislative caucuses are pressing ahead with it now, capitalizing on the tail winds of widespread public sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement and frank discussions of racism.

California would be the first state to mandate ethnic studies as a high school requirement. AB 331 would require at a minimum a one-semester course that would be based on an ethnic studies model curriculum that districts could use to fashion their own version. In 2016, the Legislature ordered that the curriculum be created to encourage more districts to teach ethnic studies.

In a press conference that Medina organized Wednesday with members of those caucuses, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, referred to the police killing of George Floyd in explaining why the Legislature should act.

“AB 331 is a clear way and a great way to make sure we are pricking students’ consciousness before they enter adulthood and before we have to see any more videos of people dying,” she said. “The time is now to answer the call for justice in a meaningful way.” A hearing on the bill is tentatively set for Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, drafters of the model ethnic studies curriculum, have been laboring for over a year to design a course that encourages all students to examine their own ethnic origins but concentrates on those groups that have been most oppressed by racism.

Before the State Board of Education adopts the model curriculum next March, it will undergo two more public comment periods and further vetting by a committee that will make its recommendations to the state board.

That process continued on Thursday, when members of the Instructional Quality Commission, which serves the state board, took their first look at a revision of the draft curriculum and heard several hours of sometimes contentious testimony. The California Department of Education shelved the first version last August amid accusations that it was ideological, and that its chapter on Arab American studies included an analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that Jews said was anti-Semitic. The model curriculum would include sample lessons and a guide for instruction, but districts would be free to fashion their own versions.

The new version is softened and stresses inclusion of the ethnic experiences of all students in a local context. It is stripped of a glossary with terms like “hxrstory” and “hxrstorically” that baffled some readers but that members of the commission on Thursday said should be restored out of recognition that they’re words that many students already know and use.

A future lesson plan on Arab Americans will cover only their experiences in this country.

But many of the 1-minute testimonies were familiar critiques: Sikhs in particular and other callers complained that their stories and ongoing discrimination would be given short shrift. Jewish immigrants from Iraq, Iran and the Mideast said their lives would be excluded from Arab American studies. A letter submitted from Jewish groups called for safeguards to ensure that materials and curricula would not become “tools of political indoctrination that promote hatred and incite harm against any race, religion, group or individual.”

At the same time, activists from the groups that would be the focus of an ethnic studies course — African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans — criticized efforts to “water down” the content by shifting the focus away from the struggles and accomplishments of those four groups.

“We are a movement, not a show,” said one commenter, who called for a return to the original draft with its “anti-racist, decolonialist lens.”

Others called for re-inclusion of the Palestinian issue.

Medina, a former ethnic studies teacher whose former wife is Jewish, agreed with some criticisms of the first draft and put off consideration of his bill for a year until it had been revised. He said in an email that he was satisfied with the progress so far on the model curriculum.

“The model curriculum is still a draft and in the early stages of the input process. I trust this process and believe we will end up with a strong ethnic studies framework that will provide a solid structure for educators to build off as they bring ethnic studies to life in their classrooms,” he said.

The Assembly passed AB 331 last year 63-8. It’s been dormant in the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose chairman, Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, has wide discretion over which bills with an impact on the state budget to move forward to the full Senate. A Senate analysis in 2019 said mandating an additional graduation requirement would be a mandate, with a cost to the state budget in the “low millions of dollars” annually.

Portantino does not comment on his positions on bills before the day of a vote, a staff member said. If AB 331 does get out of the committee, the full Senate would likely pass it and send it to Newsom.

Ethnic studies has its roots in a student protest movement during the 1960s at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. It has always focused on the study of the history, culture and struggles of the same four “marginalized” groups. In February, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that he had concluded the state’s model curriculum should as well.

Thurmond said that weekly webinars this summer on each of the four groups, led by inspirational California civil rights leaders — farm workers leader Dolores Huerta, Karen Korematsu and James Ramos, the first Native American to serve in the Legislature — reaffirmed his view. Many students attended, he said. “They want to see history not covered in history books, to read about contributions of many who have made this state and nation great.”

A challenge has been to create a model curriculum that is approachable and relevant to students in Chico as well as Compton, where students have different backgrounds and experiences. That requires making time for all students to explore their ethnicities, religions and family histories, while devoting the bulk of the course on four primary groups. And it also entails looking at America through a critical lens.

“Ethnic studies will make people uncomfortable and if not, then it has not done its job,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, a member of the commission who also created an ethnic studies program as a professor at San Diego State. “It was founded because the current system crushed people; to not recognize how deep is racism is to deny ethnic studies.”

But the chairman of the commission, Jose Iniguez, a retired school administrator, cautioned that the model curriculum should be an easy-to-use guidance that should be kept “as neutral and straightforward as possible.” If it reads as a “politicized” document and a criticism of capitalism it will “alienate more than it attracts,” he said.

If the commission makes significant changes to the latest draft, it will be in November, after the next round of public comment, leaving time for further debate on some fundamental issues.

By then, if Medina’s bill become law, the commission will be reviewing a model curriculum designed not for optional course, but for a mandated one.

The article was corrected on Aug. 14 to fix the date when AB 331 would apply to graduating high school seniors.

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  1. Robert D. Skeels, JD, Esq. 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is wonderful news. Allowing students access to their own histories often makes quite a difference. Shifting pedagogies away from what Professor Bell Hooks terms “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” can only be a good thing, especially in an era where white nationalism is a threat to us all. Several years ago I was at the Association for Raza Educators (ARE) conference and there was a panel of students enrolled in the Santee High School ethnic studies … Read More

    This is wonderful news. Allowing students access to their own histories often makes quite a difference. Shifting pedagogies away from what Professor Bell Hooks terms “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” can only be a good thing, especially in an era where white nationalism is a threat to us all.

    Several years ago I was at the Association for Raza Educators (ARE) conference and there was a panel of students enrolled in the Santee High School ethnic studies program. I remember how several of them said that ethnic studies is what motivated them to stay in school.

  2. SD Parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    Let's be clear: mandating an ethnic studies class means eliminating another class from a student's high school repertoire, namely an elective. So what class ends up sacrificed from the high school campus: a Visual and Performing Arts class (e.g. band, orchestra, choir, drama, drawing, mixed media), an Advanced Placement course (e.g. AP World History, AP Computer Science, AP Calculus, AP Physics, AP Environmental Science, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP Psychology, AP Macoeconomics, … Read More

    Let’s be clear: mandating an ethnic studies class means eliminating another class from a student’s high school repertoire, namely an elective. So what class ends up sacrificed from the high school campus: a Visual and Performing Arts class (e.g. band, orchestra, choir, drama, drawing, mixed media), an Advanced Placement course (e.g. AP World History, AP Computer Science, AP Calculus, AP Physics, AP Environmental Science, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP Psychology, AP Macoeconomics, AP Art Studio), the third or AP class of a foreign language, “non-essential,” “unweighted” electives like ASB, yearbook, journalism (for the school paper), or ??

    I’m concerned that the current political and cultural atmosphere will push Legislators to further curtail students’ limited choices in their high school curriculum. Anyone who has created a typical six-period, four-year schedule with the current high school graduation requirements, CCTE mandates, and the a-g UC requirements can tell you how little is left in a student’s high school schedule for anything else. Adding one more mandate eliminates the possibility of something else such as a class with a weighted GPA (made even more important by the CSUs relying on solely GPA for admission, due to eliminating the SAT and ACT –not to mention allowing CA students to compete equally with out-of-state students who have different graduation mandates) or an elective that sparks the interest of the jaded teenager who has little enthusiasm for all the classes already mandated for graduation.

    It would be better to make U.S. History instruction less euro-centric to incorporate the much more diverse history of our country and provide Ethnic Studies as an elective, letting students choose between many options to find what sparks their interest.

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 1 month ago1 month ago

      AB 331 allows for classes to do double duty. For example, an English class can have a semester of ethnic studies content and cover both the English and Ethnic Studies graduation requirements. However this option is most useful for Freshman or Sophomore english as students take AP english courses in Junior and Senior years. Offering ethnic studies in the Freshman and Sophomore years also ties in best with the Ethnic Studies purpose … Read More

      AB 331 allows for classes to do double duty. For example, an English class can have a semester of ethnic studies content and cover both the English and Ethnic Studies graduation requirements. However this option is most useful for Freshman or Sophomore english as students take AP english courses in Junior and Senior years. Offering ethnic studies in the Freshman and Sophomore years also ties in best with the Ethnic Studies purpose of increasing graduation rates. Which means that to provide this possibility schools have to be ready to teach teach ethnic studies content in one year. Given the current covid-19 challenges delaying AB 331 another couple years seems prudent. This seems a good balance for a state level requirement so districts can adapt it to their local needs. As districts are free to add their own graduation requirements this will not get in the way of any district that wants to start early.

      • SD Parent 1 month ago1 month ago

        Yes, integrating ethnic studies into the already mandated graduation requirements would be the way to go, but that’s not necessarily how it will be implemented. San Diego Unified voted in 2019 to mandate a stand-alone Ethnic Studies class as a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2024.

  3. Ze’ev Wurman 1 month ago1 month ago

    I think it is perfectly fitting that this course in Marxism-Leninism is approved in California. After all, we also have a bill in the works restoring Whole Language and eliminating scientific reading instruction, and a proposition on the ballot to re-establish racist preferences.

    Please turn off the lights the last one who leaves this crazy state.

    Replies

    • Ann 1 month ago1 month ago

      Oh please no! What is the number of the ‘whole language’ bill?

    • TM 5 days ago5 days ago

      It’s pretty strange that learning about the history of California through the lens of Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Latino Americans etc. is now the equivalent of Marxism. Most of the people that move here to California have no concept of its history.

  4. Paul Muench 1 month ago1 month ago

    An EdSource article of August 23rd, 2019 interpreted the commencement date in AB 331 as applying to the graduating class of 2025. This article seems to interpret AB 331 to apply to the freshman class of 2024-2025. In looking at the history of AB 331 I do not see any changes to the text regarding the commencement date. This article's interpretation seems more practical for implementation. But it's not clear to … Read More

    An EdSource article of August 23rd, 2019 interpreted the commencement date in AB 331 as applying to the graduating class of 2025. This article seems to interpret AB 331 to apply to the freshman class of 2024-2025. In looking at the history of AB 331 I do not see any changes to the text regarding the commencement date. This article’s interpretation seems more practical for implementation. But it’s not clear to me how AB 331 will be interpreted legally. Have I misinterpreted the articles? If not, which way will the law be interpreted?