Ethnic studies bill delayed in California amid controversy

A high school student's ethnic studies project is on display at at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy Miramar Campus.
A high school student’s ethnic studies project is on display at at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy Miramar Campus.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A proposed law that would require all California high school students take an ethnic studies course is on hold for this year after the draft curriculum prompted weeks of escalating controversy from diverse groups whose members said they were misrepresented or excluded.

The Thursday decision by the bill’s author quells weeks of critiques from leaders of pro-Israel organizations, who challenged the lack of teaching about anti-Semitism , and organizations representing Armenians, Greeks, Hindus and Koreans, whose members want lessons about their people to be taught. Meanwhile, a broad coalition of student groups and educators, mainly people of color, rallied in support of the current draft. In the midst of the critiques, state educators announced that the first draft of curriculum fell short and would be substantially revised.

Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), the author, said he remains committed to making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, but problems and disagreements with the draft curriculum need “ample time” to be worked out.


“I strongly believe in the tenets of ethnic studies and continue to assert that it is time for California to make the subject a requirement for all students,” Medina said in a statement. “It is not a question of whether the subject itself is necessary but rather, how do we ensure the curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous, and inclusive enough. This underscores the importance of taking the time necessary to ensure we get the curriculum right.”

Medina’s action turned Assembly Bill 331 into a “two-year bill,” which allows him to postpone a vote in the current session without killing it. Lawmakers often choose the two-year path in an attempt to resolve controversies or rally the necessary support.

Despite his support for ethnic studies, Medina had joined other members of the Legislature’s Jewish caucus in late July, when they objected to portions of a “model” curriculum that is being developed to guide the state’s teachers.

They questioned, for example, why Islamophobia is defined in the curriculum’s glossary but not anti-Semitism. Pro-Israel groups, in particular, complained that the curriculum’s brief presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one-sided.

Others said the draft curriculum is filled with too much jargon, including the glossary, which includes terms such as “herstory and “hxrstory” instead of “history,” and “cisheteropatriarchy.”

Ethnic studies in California have focused mainly on four groups: Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and indigenous peoples — those present in the Americas before the period of European colonization. The academic field is rooted in California activism in 1968 when the Black Student Union and a coalition of student groups at San Francisco State University, known as the Third World Liberation Front, began a student strike calling for ethnic studies. Scholars see their field as an antidote to mainstream doctrine.


But members of other ethnic groups said they want the curriculum to include their American experience as well. Earlier this week groups including Black Lives Matter California, the League of United Latin American Citizens California, the Northern California Foco of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, and Jewish Voice for Peace - Bay Area, said significant revisions could weaken the integrity of the academic discipline.

State officials pledged last week that there will be substantial changes to the curriculum to make it more inclusive before its final approval.

The deadline for the curriculum was set for next March, but that too could be pushed back, officials said recently. An extension would require new legislation, said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Dept. of Education.

Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, vice-chair of the Jewish caucus, called Medina’s decision to delay action on the graduation requirement “a wise move.”

“We know that a lot of school districts around the state are going to rely on the model curriculum,” said Gabriel, who represents the west San Fernando Valley. “And what we do here in California could be a model for other states to follow,”

Gabriel has backed the requirement but said it would have been difficult to continue supporting Medina’s bill had the curriculum been approved as is.

R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a Los Angeles teacher who co-chaired the advisory committee that created the draft curriculum, said Thursday he was comfortable with the delay.

“I let Assemblymember Medina know a couple of weeks ago, I strongly recommend the conversion of [the legislation] into a two-year bill. It makes sense,” said Cuauhtin. “Can we help others feel more included? Yes, definitely — not at the cost of what ethnic studies is, though. That would create a situation where students of color will get a diluted form of ethnic studies.”

He added that all students, including white students, would benefit from a strong ethnic studies curriculum.

Medina’s delay allows the curriculum to evolve into its final form before lawmakers have to vote on whether to make it a graduation requirement. Medina said Thursday that he’s also going to amend the bill so that no students would have to meet the requirement until those graduating in 2026.

A separate pending bill would make ethnic studies a graduation requirement for students at Cal State campuses.