SACRAMENTO — California will require students to complete an ethnic studies course to graduate from high school under a bill Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Friday, and it’s believed to be the first state to mandate such coursework.
The new law comes after a year in which California leaders and activists focused more on racial justice following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It also comes as conservatives nationwide have taken issue with K-12 lessons on systemic racism and protested at school board meetings against “critical race theory.”
High school students won’t be required to take the courses for graduation until 2029, while schools will be required to offer ethnic studies courses starting in 2025, giving districts and education officials time to fully develop coursework. The curriculum has been subject to intense debate as some ethnic groups have raised concerns with how their history will be taught.
Newsom’s office on Friday pointed to research from Stanford University that shows ethnic studies “help expand educational opportunities in schools, teach students about the diverse communities that comprise California, and boost academic engagement and attainment.”
The state took several years to develop a model curriculum for ethnic studies and drew criticism from the Legislative Jewish Caucus, which said the first draft omitted their full history. Schools will still be able to locally develop their own plan under Assembly Bill 101.
The bill asks districts to consider the “lengthy, thorough, deliberative and inclusive process” the State Board of Education took on to create a framework for the curriculum but allows schools to develop their own plan if approved by a local school board subject to public hearings.
The state’s ethnic studies framework, approved in March, promotes “a social consciousness” and will address “institutionalized systems of advantage” and forms of bigotry including anti-Blackness, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The bill’s author, Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside), has repeatedly pushed ethnic studies legislation to no avail. Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year, saying that while he agreed with the mission, he had concerns that the curriculum remained “insufficiently balanced” after concerns from Jewish and Arab American organizations.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown also vetoed an attempt in 2018, saying that while he valued ethnic studies, schools can already offer it on their own without a mandate.
The lengthy delay in implementation reflects the potential logistical and political challenges in developing the coursework and mandating it for graduation. The bill “provides a number of safeguards to ensure that courses will be free from bias or bigotry and appropriate for all students,” Newsom officials said in a statement.
“I want to acknowledge the countless young people, high school and college students, teachers and professors, who have organized, demonstrated, boycotted classes, and gone on hunger strikes to demand a more equitable and inclusive educational system,” Medina said in a statement. “The signing of AB 101 today is one step in the long struggle for equal education for all students.”