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California is the first U.S. state to require ethnic studies for high school graduation. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California makes history as it passes first education requirement for ethnic studies into law

Assembly Bill 101 was introduced by Assemblymember Jose Medina, and includes a one-semester ethnic studies course in requirements for high school diplomas.

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On Friday, Oct. 8, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 101, an education bill that will require every student at a public high school or charter school in the state to take an ethnic studies course.

California is now the first state to pass such a law. 

AB 101 was introduced by Assemblymember Jose Medina. It includes a one-semester ethnic studies course in high school diploma requirements, beginning with students graduating in the 2029-30 school year.

The legislation’s objective is to expand educational opportunities, teach students about the variety of racial communities across the state and prevent course bias.

Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) superintendent Brent Stephens told The Daily Californian that AB 101 will require all school districts in the state to adjust their curriculum, and that ethnic studies will be integrated into various facets of K-12 education.

Stephens also said that teachers in the district will undergo related training, and BUSD is honing in on the removal of bias. 

Zeus Leonardo, professor at the Graduate School of Education, told The Daily Californian that there is still a lot to learn about implementing ethnic studies into curriculums, but it is crucial for students to begin learning about the topic at a young age. 

Leonardo also said that this approach will not only enhance cultural understanding but help students of color to learn about each other. 

“It will change students’ own self-concepts (and) understanding of other populations that are not their own,” Leonardo said. 

According to Cal Matters, specific lessons provided in a sample of the curriculum include topics such as Black Lives Matter and social change, the immigration experience of Lao Americans, Indigenous history and land acknowledgment, and undocumented immigrants from Mexico and beyond. 

The movement to include ethnic studies in education began in California in the late 1960s, when students at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley held protests demanding courses in African American, Chicano, Asian American and Native American studies. 

Educators are happy to see that California has taken the lead with this legislation, but feel that it is long overdue, considering that more than three-quarters of the state’s 6 million public school students are people of color. 

Medina first introduced the measure in 2019 but Newsom vetoed an earlier version, saying that it needed revision. 

Earlier this year, the state Board of Education approved a model ethnic studies curriculum that provides dozens of recommended lesson plans. They are not mandatory, but schools can choose from the plans or use them as a guide to design their own. 

The curriculum underwent multiple drafts over a three year period and sparked heated debate before it was approved in March. 

It focuses on four marginalized groups that are central to college level ethnic studies: African Americans, Chicanos and other Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. It also has lesson plans covering Jewish people, Arab, Sikh and Armenian Americans who are not typically part of this type of curriculum. 

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, an emerita professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University told EdSource that this curriculum requirement has character building potential for students, as they learn how people from different backgrounds face obstacles, persevere and contribute to American society. 

 “At a time when some states are retreating from an accurate discussion of our history, I am proud that California continues to lead in its teaching of ethnic studies,” Weber said.

AB 101 will release $50 million into this year’s state budget for all county offices of education, charter schools and school districts to develop the new curriculums. The funding will be distributed directly to schools serving high school students, according to the California Department of Education. 

“We’re implementing the historic, transformative measures needed to help support our students’ health and wellbeing, bridge the digital divide with improved access to broadband, and expand educational opportunities for future generations,” Newsom said in a statement. 

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