Ethnic Studies: Moving Past the Divisiveness

In 2016, a bill by former Assembly Member Luis Alejo required the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) to develop, and the State Board of Education (SBE) to adopt, modify, or revise, a model curriculum in ethnic studies to ensure quality courses of study in ethnic studies. The bill further required the ethnic studies model curriculum (ESMC) to be written as a guide to allow school districts to adapt their courses to reflect the pupil demographics in their communities and to include examples of courses approved as meeting A-G requirements. 


It took nearly four years of work, and many controversies, before the SBE was able to approve the ESMC at a meeting in March of this year. Under the Alejo bill, the deadline for the SBE to take action on the ESMC was March 31, 2020. Ahead of that deadline, the first draft of the ESMC was released in July 2019 but was met with concerns from a number of education partners that the draft was biased towards certain ethnic groups while completely overlooking others. These concerns prompted the Governor to direct his staff to work with SBE President, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) to develop a revised draft that addressed the concerns raised. To allow more time to revise the draft, the SBE approval deadline was pushed out an additional year to March 31, 2021.


This revised draft ESMC was released in August of last year and aimed to increase awareness, understanding, and respect among all students while focusing on four racial and ethnic groups – African American Studies, Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x Studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies, and Native American Studies. It also includes lesson plans that reflect the diversity of California, including groups such as Jews, Armenians, and Sikhs. The revised ESMC went out for multiple public comment periods before being formally approved by the SBE at its March 16-18, 2021 meeting.


This delay in the ESMC adoption timeline also impacted efforts by Assembly Member Jose Medina (D-Riverside) to add ethnic studies as both a course and a graduation requirement for high school students. Assembly Member Medina’s initial attempt, AB 331, made it to the Governor’s desk in 2020 but was vetoed by Governor Newsom, who implied the bill was premature given that, at that time the bill was before him, there were still questions and concerns over the appropriate K-12 model curriculum for ethnic studies.


The compromise reached on the ESMC and its subsequent approval by the SBE opened the door for another attempt by Assembly Member Medina to create an ethnic studies course and graduation requirement. AB 101, which was signed by the Governor in October, requires local educational agencies (LEAs) serving grades 9-12 to offer at least a one-semester course in ethnic studies beginning in the 2025-26 school year. In addition, the bill adds the completion of at least one semester of ethnic studies as a graduation requirement for the Class of 2030. Pupils can fulfill the requirement by completing any of the following: a course based on the ethnic studies model curriculum adopted by the SBE, an existing ethnic studies course, an ethnic studies course taught as part of a course that has been approved as meeting the A-G requirements, or a locally developed ethnic studies course approved by the governing board of a school district or charter school. 


The 2021-22 Budget also included $5 million for the California Department of Education (CDE) to provide professional development and resources to support LEAs offering new and expanded ethnic studies courses and $50 million to the SPI for allocations to LEAs to support the creation or expansion of ethnic studies course offerings. 


As districts begin to think about plans to meet the new requirement, they may want to avoid the divisiveness that delayed ESMC adoption by the SBEand pay close attention to the legislative intent expressed in the bill.AB 101 contains language that specifically requires all ethnicstudies courses beappropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, pupils with disabilities, and English learners; not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis of any category protected by Section 220; and not teach or promote religious doctrine.Districts that choose to develop their own ethnic studies course should carefully review the ESMC and note which sections were revised, deleted or added based on concerns related to balance and bias.


With all of the attention on responding to the pandemic and providing a stable school environment this school year, we thought a reminder about preparing for the ethnic studies requirement might be helpful.





Caitlin Jung

Legislative Counsel | Capitol Advisors Group