Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday that makes California one of the first in the country to include ethnic studies as a graduation requirement for all public high school students.
Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Riverside Democrat who authored the legislation that has been in the works for years, called it a big step for California.
“It has been a long wait,” Medina said. “I think schools are ready now to make a curriculum that is more equitable and reflects more social justice.”
The new law requires all public schools in the state to offer at least one ethnic studies course beginning in the 2025-26 school year and requires that students graduating in the 2029-30 school year have completed a one-semester course in The matter.
The ethnic studies movement has its roots in California, where students protested in the late 1960s at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley to demand courses in African American, Chicano, Asian American and Native American studies.
Earlier this year, the state Board of Education approved a model ethnic studies curriculum that offers dozens of suggested lesson plans and instructional approaches. The curriculum is not mandatory, but schools can choose from their lesson plans or use it as a guide to design their own.
The curriculum underwent multiple drafts over three years and was the subject of heated debate before gaining approval in March.
The model curriculum focuses on four historically underserved groups that are foundational to college-level ethnic studies: African Americans, Chicanos and other Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. It also includes lesson plans on Jews, Arab-Americans, Sikh-Americans, and Armenian-Americans that are not traditionally part of an ethnic studies curriculum. Those groups were added after opposing a previous draft that excluded them.
The new legislation adds completion of an ethnic studies course to other standard graduation requirements, including three years of English and social studies, two years of math and science, among others. Give a few years of delay for schools to prepare.
“Schools can’t just flip the switch and be ready. This gives school districts a lot of time to implement their curriculum and hire well-qualified teachers to teach these classes,” Medina said.
Several of California’s largest school districts are ahead of the curve.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state, voted last year to require a course in ethnic studies as a graduation requirement for the 2023-24 school year. The Fresno Unified School District school board voted last year to require two semesters of ethnic studies for students entering high school this year.
In San Francisco, where high schools have offered ethnic studies as an elective since 2015, students will be required to take two semesters of ethnic studies courses to graduate from 2028.
Other states have taken different approaches. Oregon is developing ethnic studies standards for its social studies curriculum and, beginning this year, requires the subject in the K-12 curriculum. Last year, Connecticut passed a law requiring all high schools to offer Black and Latino studies courses by fall 2022.
Another bill signed Friday by Newsom requires health education courses in middle and high schools to include mental health instruction, to help students identify common mental health problems and know how to get help.
Educators say it is appropriate that California has taken the lead on ethnic studies legislation, and that it has done so for a long time as well. More than three-quarters of California’s 6 million public school students are not white.
Medina initially introduced his measure in 2019, but it was sidelined amid debate over the model curriculum. Newsom vetoed an earlier version, saying the curriculum needed an overhaul and should be in place before the state made ethnic studies a requirement.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has praised ethnic studies legislation as a way to help students of color see themselves reflected in what they learn and also learn about their stories.
Medina said America’s broader discussion of race and racism since George Floyd’s assassination last year makes that curriculum more important than ever.
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