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California Becomes the First State to Mandate Ethnic Studies for High School Students

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101, mandating public high school students in California to complete an ethnic studies course beginning in 2025, on Oct. 8. 

Given California’s diverse student population, with less than a quarter of public K-12 students being white, “ethnic studies courses enable students to learn their own stories and those of their classmates,” Newsom’s signing message read.

The bill was first introduced by Assemblymember Jose Medina, a former ethnic studies teacher at Poly High School in Riverside, in 2018. The proposed curriculum underwent several drafts over the course of three years and was subject to heated debate. It was approved by the California State Board of Education in March. 

Medina spoke about the issue in a statement addressed to the governor.

“The inclusion of ethnic studies in the high school curriculum is long overdue. 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,” Medina said. 

While the ethnic studies curriculum has been approved at the state level, controversy has continued at the school and district levels. Some criticize the curriculum as too left-leaning and others express concern about it promoting critical race theory, an academic concept first developed at the university level that analyzes how race and racism are embedded in institutional and systemic inequalities.

Critics such as former Assistant Secretary of Education Williamson M. Evers opposed the curriculum. Evers argued that it contained “racially divisive” content “burdened by faddish ideology,” which portrays American culture and institutions from a perspective of oppressor and victim. 

Although the material that will be taught in high schools is decided by local district officials, the state has provided a teaching guide, otherwise known as a model curriculum. While educators can pick elements to include from the curriculum, they are expected to follow the main ideas of the framework. The nearly 900-page curriculum includes sample lessons with titles such as “#BlackLivesMatter and Social Change,” “Chinese Railroad Workers” and “US Undocumented Immigrants from Mexico and Beyond.”

Newsom, who vetoed a nearly identical measure last year, called for a revision to the state’s teaching guide to be more fair, balanced and “inclusive to all communities.” After its most recent revision, Newsom has shown support for the curriculum.

“America is shaped by our shared history, much of it painful and etched with woeful injustice. 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,” Newsom said.

According to Medina, AB 101 will promote a more equitable and inclusive educational system.

“The signing of AB 101 today is one step in the long struggle for equal education for all students,” Medina said.

Ellie Zhang is a Staff Writer for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at yitangz@uci.edu.