Howard Blume and Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2021
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 a revised and completed state curriculum guide for ethnic studies — one that would be, he said, balanced, fair and “inclusive of all communities.”
The signing was lauded by Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), the bill’s author. Medina called the new requirement “long overdue” and “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 of the state teaching guide 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.
“America is shaped by our shared history, much of it painful and etched with woeful injustice,” the governor said in his signing statement. Students “must understand our nation’s full history if we expect them to one day build a more just society.”
Individual school districts will have the task of developing courses using the state’s teaching guide, which is called a “model curriculum.” Educators can pick and choose elements 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.
Even before the statewide requirement, an increasing number of schools and districts were offering ethnic studies, and some, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, already had made the class a graduation requirement.
Ultimately, many California ethnic studies critics were at least mollified by changes to the teaching guide or to the legislation. These included Jewish and pro-Israel advocates, who asserted that the original draft of the model curriculum was anti-Israel and defined Islamophobia but not antisemitism.
The final version deletes the lessons and references that offended some Jewish groups.
When the bill passed with overwhelming approval in both the Assembly and the Senate, the Legislature’s five “diversity caucuses” — lawmakers who identify with and evaluate legislation with sensitivity to Asians and Pacific Islanders, Black people, Jews, Latinos, and Native Americans — issued a joint statement of support.
“Requiring ethnic studies in high schools is an integral part of cultivating a classroom environment that is accepting of diversity,” the joint statement said.
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.”