California becomes the first state to require ethnic studies for high school students

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The requirement will be included in curricula starting with the class of 2030 

IN order to graduate high school, students in California will now be required to complete an ethnic studies course according to a new law that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on Friday, Oct. 8, becoming the first state in the nation to mandate a course about ethnic and racial groups that have been historically overlooked in the classroom.

Newsom’s approval of the legislation ended a years-long debate among state lawmakers concerning the most appropriate ethnic studies model for high school curricula across the Golden State.

The law, AB 101, would require local education institutions and charter schools serving ninth to 12th graders to include an ethnic studies requisite, starting with the class of 2030.

A model for ethnic studies has been a priority among education advocates and state lawmakers from the five ethnic caucuses (Asian Pacific Islander, Black, Jewish, Latino, and Native American), who believe that social studies curricula neglected many cultural groups

“America is shaped by our shared history, much of it painful and etched with woeful injustice,” Newsom said in a statement regarding the mandate. “Students deserve to see themselves in their studies, and they must understand our nation’s full history if we expect them to one day build a more just society.”

According to the California Department of Education (CDE), more than 75% of K-12 students attending public school are non-white, meaning a vast majority are students of color.

Educators and lawmakers — including California Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside), who authored AB 101 — argue that a more inclusive social studies model that more accurately reflects the demographic makeup of the state would benefit the rapidly diversifying student body.

Specifically, the ethnic studies requirement is designed to help fill in the gaps that previous social studies curricula had in regards to the histories of the struggle of marginalized communities.

“The inclusion of ethnic studies in the high school curriculum is long overdue,” Medina said in a statement. “Students cannot have a full understanding of the history of our state and nation without the inclusion of the contributions and struggles of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.”

The new law comes after a tumultuous 2020 and the so-called summer of racial reckoning which spurred renewed conversations of race, ethnicity, and justice in America. Since then, the state has expedited the drafting of the ethnic studies curriculum, which had already been in the works for three years.

But previous versions — one of which was vetoed by Newsom last year — were criticized for the exclusions of some groups, like the Arab, Armenian, Jewish, and Sikh American communities, and for being too politically correct.

Older drafts of the bill included niche terms like “cisheteropatriarchy” and “hxrstory” as well as lesson plans that described capitalism as the root of exploitation toward native people and communities of color.

Despite the historic value of the curriculum’s inclusion in high school classrooms, the mandate has its critics.

Republican and conservative groups have been campaigning for months against any teachings that remotely touched on critical race theory, an interdisciplinary study of structural and systemic racism.

Others think that the bill is not thorough enough in its mission to offer a more inclusive and complete look into the histories of certain groups.

Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum — a group of educators and experts that consult school districts and who contributed to the early drafts of the mandate — argued that the curriculum that Newsom signed into law is “a watered-down version” of history, citing lessons that were excluded in the final draft like “the true causes of police brutality” against the Black American community.

California becoming the first state to mandate an ethnic studies requirement aptly reflects the state’s history in cultivating ethnic studies as a branch of academic study.

The ethnic studies movement dates back to the 1960s, when students from San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley demanded the inclusion of courses that covered African American, Asian American, Chicano and Native American studies.

The state’s requirement follows ground-breaking ethnic studies requirements that school districts across the state implemented over the last couple of years.

Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second-largest school district in the nation — approved a district-wide ethnic studies course requirement in order to graduate, starting with the 2023-2024 academic year, as previously reported in the Asian Journal.

Other school systems — like the California State University system — also recently approved an ethnic studies requirement for graduation.

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

Klarize Medenilla

Klarize Medenilla is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at k.medenilla@asianjournalinc.com.

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