California Considers Ethnic Studies for K-12 Students

By Viviana Martín, California Policy Analyst, Civic Engagement, UnidosUS

California is considering a bill that could make it the first state in the nation to establish ethnic studies in K-12, and it comes at a time when racism is reverberating across the country and legislatures in states like Arizona, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arkansas where legislators are attempting to limit what history can be taught in the classroom. In most cases, these policymakers are vociferously objecting to what is known as critical race theory, an academic framework exploring how a history of racism contributes to social and economic inequities today.  But in California, such discussions have been more nuanced.

In March, following several years of contentious debates, the California State Assembly passed AB 101, a bill that would require all K-12 students to take at least one ethnic studies course before graduating high school. Sponsored by California Assemblyman Jose Medina, the bill seeks to build a culturally responsive curricula that reflects the challenges and triumphs of an increasingly diverse and historically underrepresented student body. California’s K-12 student population is now 78% non-white and 55% Latino, making it one of the most diverse school systems in the United States.

101 is the reintroduction of AB 331, which Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed last September over disagreements on the model curriculum the California Department of Education (CDE) was drafting. Governor Newsom, who is a supporter of ethnic studies, vetoed the previous bill on the grounds that the model curriculum “was insufficiently balanced and inclusive.” Revisions to the model curriculum have been made and it was adopted by the State Board of Education this past March. It is up to school districts to decide if they will adopt it and which parts they will use. AB 101 would require schools serving students in grades nine to 12 to offer an ethnic studies course starting 2025-2026. School districts can fulfill the requirement through various options, including using the model curriculum.

UnidosUS is one of many civil rights organizations advocating for AB 101’s full passage. The organization’s policy analysts say ethnic study courses should focus on history and literature about the struggles of people whose voices have been omitted from traditional texts and classroom presentations, with an emphasis on Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American populations.

AB 101 has broad support, including from teacher, student, and parent groups. Support for this bill has come from California Teachers Association, the California State PTA, and organizations like Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, California Association for Bilingual Education, Californians Together, and The Education Trust-West.

Students across California have been asking for courses that reflect their own history and experiences. This was reflected in the comments made in a series of online focus groups hosted by California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond.

“They asked us why they didn’t learn about their own histories in school,” Thurmond said during the March State Board of Education meeting.

And in a letter to the California Assembly Committee on Education, the student-led non-profit California Association of Student Councils wrote:

“Requiring ethnic studies to be taught in high schools is an integral part of cultivating a classroom environment that is accepting of diversity. It is vital for young people to learn about their history, it is also important for them to feel like they can contribute to their communities in positive ways.”

There has been some pushback. So far, AB 101 has received opposition from organizations such as AMCHA Initiative, California Family Council, California for Equal Rights, Capital Resource Institute, and Pacific Justice Institute. Many of these groups align who believe that this curriculum amounts to critical race theory, which has come under fire by conservatives who consider it as a divisive, left leaning pedagogy focused on the oppressed verses the oppressors.

During the first draft of the curriculum, one of the biggest criticisms came from Jewish leaders who suggested discussions of Islamophobia should not focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict for fear it will come across as anti-Zionist. The new curriculum now has an expanded section on anti-Semitism, and as a result, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus has removed its objection. However, in a May 20 press release the AMCHA, a watchdog group that tracks anti-Semitism, continued to argue that the ethnic studies curriculum will result in “highly controversial, one-sided and extremely coercive political advocacy and activism.”

At the same time, some of the original drafters of the curriculum removed their names because they felt it was now diluted into a kind of multiculturalism that takes the emphasis off historically underrepresented ethnic groups, which in the state of California, have long been considered people of Asian and Pacific Islander, Black, Latino, and Native American descent.

“California students have been denied Ethnic Studies as conservative adults with other agendas have turned the model curriculum into something which is far from the scope and focus of Ethnic Studies,” they wrote in a letter to California’s Department of Education and State Board of Education.

In spite of these disagreements, the model curriculum has been adopted. California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a former lawmaker and creator of an ethnic studies program at San Diego University, supported the curriculum alongside civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. Secretary Weber has said that, “we will not find the perfect curriculum, but we have one that is strong,” a sentiment shared by education officials who viewed the curriculum as a starting point.

AB101 has passed the Assembly. The bill is scheduled for a hearing before California’s Senate Education Committee on July 14.

In a recent letter of support to California Senator Connie Leyva (D-20th District), chair of the state senate’s education committee, UnidosUS noted that ethnic studies can improve academic performance while simultaneously helping students to see themselves as agents of change.

“There is substantial data that shows student achievement, attendance, and college-going rates improve when students see themselves reflected in the classroom, therefore, having students take an ethnic studies course will contribute to closing the opportunity gap for students of color,” wrote UnidosUS.

For example, a 2011 review of ethnic studies curricula by the National Education Association, found that exposure to ethnic studies led to consistently higher rates of academic achievement, greater awareness of race and racism, and more favorable views of each student’s own racial group.

Meanwhile, a 2016 working paper from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education found striking improvements in student achievement following the implementation of a yearlong ninth-grade ethnic studies pilot in the San Francisco Unified School District. Between the schoolyears 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, researchers found that ethnic students of all races had a 21% increase in attendance, and a 1.4 rise in grade point averages, while increasing by 23 the number of credits they earned to graduate.

Given these outcomes, UnidosUS believes ethnic studies could help engage students more meaningfully, especially amid a time of great social unrest in America.

“This past year, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted long-standing inequities in the country’s education system, and a national movement advocating against anti-Blackness and discrimination in American society revealed how deeply ingrained racism is in the nation’s fabric,” UnidosUS stated in its letter.