Ethnic studies as a CA high school graduation requirement: New bill awaits Gov. Newsom’s approval

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

A new bill is waiting for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature — it would require high school students to take an ethnic studies course before graduating. The mandate would go into effect by the year 2030. Photo by Shutterstock.

California lawmakers have sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a bill that makes ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement by the year 2030. Many Republican lawmakers opposed it, saying the curriculum is Anti-American and unfair to white students.

But research shows that ethnic studies, when taught correctly, can improve attendance and graduation rates for some students of color.

Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year. At the time, he said that he supports ethnic studies but wanted to see a more balanced curriculum. Previous versions of the curriculum didn’t include anything about anti-Semitism and criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. 

Democratic State Assemblymember Jose Medina from Riverside introduced the bill again this year. He tells Press Play that this is a very different model of a curriculum guide, which got lots of public input. It’s from the State Board of Education, and individual districts can adopt their own curricula. Districts such as LA Unified, San Francisco and Sacramento are already implementing ethnic studies. 

“Ethnic studies has traditionally been based upon what the curriculum guide calls four groups or pillars, and that is Latino/Chicano, Asian American, Native American, and African American/Black,” says Medina. “And I would believe that most of the districts have those four groups as the center of the focus of ethnic studies.”

Sade Bonilla, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted research that found that students who were eligible for a year-long ninth grade ethnic studies course in San Francisco had outsized gains in attendance, credits, graduation, and college enrollment. The study focused on eighth grade students who struggled academically.

“My opinion is that given the effective practices in ethnic studies that really focus on culturally relevant, critically engaged content related to issues of social justice/anti-racism, it's feasible that all students would benefit from exposure to these lessons on critical thinking, social awareness around discrimination, and with the ultimate goal of potentially producing more socially engaged citizens,” she says. 

Still, some critics worry that white students will be scapegoated in class. Is that a reasonable fear?

“I do not think that a course that focuses on social awareness, on historical facts around discrimination would be necessarily unwelcoming. I think that it will sort of broaden students’ perspective on injustice as it happened historically, and give them the tools to sort of understand how that fits in society, and give them tools to think about how they can act to promote a more just society,” says Bonilla. 

The original authors of the curriculum felt the final version was compromised "due to political and media pressure," however. Medina says legislation isn’t easy, and sometimes when there’s a final bill, some people on both the left and right aren’t completely happy with the outcome. 

“But I know that all five of the caucuses in this building — including the Jewish Caucus, the Native American Caucus, the Black Caucus, Latino Caucus, the API caucus — all stood with me on the day that this bill finally came out and headed to the governor for his signature,” he says. 

Medina believes the governor will sign this version of the bill. “I think the time is right. I think what he asked for has been accomplished — a more balanced curriculum. And I expect his signature within the next 30 days.”

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