California becomes the first state to make racial studies a requirement for high school graduation
Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday that would make California among the first in the country to include racial studies as a graduation requirement for all public high school students.
Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Riverside Democrat who put in place the legislation that took years to prepare, called it a big step for California.
“It’s been a long wait,” Medina said. “I think schools are now ready to make the curriculum more equitable and more reflective of social justice.”
The new law requires all public schools in the state to offer at least one ethnic course of study beginning in the 2025-26 school year and requires students graduating in the 2029-30 school year to have completed one semester in the subject.
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, 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 methods. The curriculum is not mandatory but schools can choose from their own lesson plans or use them as a guide to design their own.
The syllabus went through several drafts over three years and was subject to heated debate before getting approval in March.
The typical curriculum focuses on four historically marginalized groups that are central to college-level ethnic studies: African Americans, Chicans and other Latinos, Asian and Pacific Americans, and Native Americans. It also includes lesson plans for Jews, Arab Americans, Sikh Americans, and Armenian Americans who do not traditionally participate in the ethnic studies curriculum. These groups were added after objecting to an earlier draft that was left out.
The new legislation adds completion of an ethnic studies course to other standard graduation requirements, including three years of English and social studies, and two years of math and science, among others. It gives a few years delay so that schools can prepare.
“Schools cannot flip the switch and be ready,” Medina said. “This gives school districts plenty of time to develop their curricula and hire well-qualified teachers to teach these classes.”
Many of California’s larger school districts are ahead of the curve.
Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, voted last year to require a course in ethnic studies as a requirement for graduation by the 2023-24 school year. The Fresno Unified School Board voted last year to require two semesters of racial 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 starting in 2028.
Other countries have followed different approaches. Oregon is developing Ethnic Studies Standards for its social studies curriculum, and starting this year the subject is required in the K-12 curriculum. Last year, Connecticut approved a law requiring all high schools to offer courses in black and Latin studies by fall 2022.
Another bill signed Friday by Newsom would require health education courses in middle and high schools to include mental health education, to help students identify common mental health problems and learn how to get help.
Educators say it is fitting that California has taken the lead in racial studies legislation, which is also long overdue. More than three-quarters of California’s 6 million public school students are not white.
Medina initially introduced his scale in 2019 but has been sidelined amid the controversy over the Model Curriculum. Newsom disputed an earlier version, saying that the curriculum needed to be revised and should be in place before the state made racial studies a requirement.
State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond lauded the racial studies legislation as a way to help students of color see themselves reflected in what they learn, as well as learn about their history.
Medina said that America’s broader discussion of race and racism since the killing of George Floyd last year makes such an approach more important than ever.
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