New California Law to Require Ethnic Studies Class for High Schoolers

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High school students sit on chairs behind tables facing a teacher, who stands.
Students in class at San Francisco International High School in March 2017. (Deb Svoboda/KQED)

California high school students will have to complete a semester of ethnic studies in order to graduate, starting with the class of 2030.

That new secondary school requirement, among the first in the nation, was signed into law Friday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said the courses will enable students to learn their own stories as well as those of their classmates.

"A number of studies have shown that these courses boost student achievement over the long run — especially among students of color," he said in a statement.

The new law requires all public high schools in the state to offer at least one ethnic studies course, starting in the 2025-26 school year.

Newsom's signature marks a major victory for Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, who co-authored the legislation, Assembly Bill 101, after his previous efforts were twice vetoed — last year by Newsom, who said more work was needed on the curriculum, and in 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who was reluctant to create additional graduation requirements.

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Medina said the ethnic studies requirement is long overdue.

“It’s been a long wait,” said Medina. “I think schools are ready now to make curriculum that is more equitable and more reflective of social justice.”

Medina said America’s wider discussion of race and racism since the murder of George Floyd last year makes such a curriculum more important than ever.

The ethnic studies movement has its roots in California, where students protested in the late 1960s at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley to demand courses in African American, Chicano, Asian American and Native American studies.

Earlier this year, the state Board of Education approved a model ethnic studies curriculum that offers dozens of suggested lesson plans and instructional approaches. But to the concern of some advocates, the curriculum is not mandatory: Schools can pick and choose lesson plans or use it as a guide to design their own, as long as they don't promote, directly or indirectly, any bias or discrimination against any group of people.

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The curriculum underwent several drafts over three years and was subject to heated debate before winning approval in March.

An initial 2019 draft of the model curriculum drew widespread criticism from those who claimed it was left-wing, anti-Semitic and not inclusive enough. At the time, state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond called for a major overhaul.

"A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all," she said in a 2019 statement. "The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned."

The new version focuses on four historically marginalized groups that are central to college-level ethnic studies: African Americans, Chicanos and other Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. It also includes lesson plans on Jews, Arab Americans, Sikh Americans and Armenian Americans, groups who were largely left out of the previously drafted curriculum.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has championed the model curriculum as a way to help students of color see themselves reflected in what they learn, and also to learn about their own histories.

The legislation adds the completion of an ethnic studies course to other standard graduation requirements, including three years of English and social studies, two years of math and science, among others. It gives a few years' lag time so schools can prepare.

“Schools can’t just flip the switch and be ready. This gives school districts plenty of time to get their curriculum in place and hire well-qualified teachers to teach these classes,” Medina said.

Several of California’s largest districts already have begun offering ethnic studies courses, with some making them a graduation requirement. Among the trailblazers is the Fresno Unified School District, which this year began requiring its students to complete a 10-credit, two-semester ethnic studies course. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Unified plans to fully implement ethnic studies as a graduation requirement by 2023-24.

In San Francisco, where high schools have offered ethnic studies as an elective since 2015, students will be required to take two semesters of ethnic studies courses to graduate, starting in 2028.

Ethnic studies also was made a requirement this year for the state's community college students seeking an associate's degree.

Other states have taken different approaches. Oregon is developing ethnic studies standards for its social studies curriculum and, beginning this year, requires the subject in K-12 curriculum. Last year, Connecticut approved a law requiring all high schools to offer courses in Black and Latino studies by the fall of 2022.

Several GOP-led states have taken the opposite tack, banning the teaching of so-called critical race theory in K-12 schools or limiting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom.

Educators say it is fitting that California has taken a lead in ethnic studies legislation, and that it's long overdue. More than three-quarters of California’s 6 million public school students are not white.

“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,” Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a former academic who created an ethnic studies program at San Diego State University in the 1970s, said in a statement.

This post includes reporting from Jocelyn Gecker of The Associated Press.