California’s Mandated Ethnic Studies Bill Progresses Despite Criticism

On August 31, the California State Assembly and Senate passed AB 331, a bill that states that all California schools must include a semester of ethnic studies in their graduation requirements. The AB 331 bill aims to create space for students to have conversations about their ethnicity while focusing on the experiences of those who are most affected by discrimination. 

The bill, which was originally drafted in mid 2019, now awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature, which would make California the first state to mandate ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. 

“I think in general it’s a great thing, and I’m excited that it’s moving forward,” said Dana Moran, a Universal Ninth Grade (U9) ethnic studies teacher and contributor to Berkeley High School’s (BHS) original ethnic studies curriculum. 

Although the bill received a vast majority of ayes at both the California State Assembly and Senate, it’s still far from becoming a reality. As part of the latest revision of the bill, it won’t take effect until 2025, meaning the graduating class of 2030 would be the first to have to meet the mandate.

Another revision could undermine the bill in practice; provisions of the bill would only take effect after funds are delegated in the legislature’s annual budget. This means that high schools won’t be required to implement ethnic studies classes unless and until a budget is approved sometime in the future. The decision to include this clause in the bill, instead of designating resources with its passage, implies a reasonable likelihood of state-mandated ethnic studies being defunded.

Since AB 331’s passage, there have been many controversial aspects of the bill that have been and still are subject to heated debate and public scrutiny. The inclusion of material surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict in the proposed curriculum was the target of much of the criticism. It was seen as a very biased take on the situation that utilized anti-Semitic tropes. The lesson in question was removed from the proposed curriculum, but that controversy seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. 

Creating an ethnic studies curriculum with the limitations of a semester-long course leaves educators with the very difficult decision of choosing which subjects and perspectives should be taught, and which shouldn’t.

“When I was in ethnic studies there was barely anything about Jewish Americans, Muslims, [and] Indian immigrants; I was really disappointed, for myself and everyone else that identifies as Jewish,” said Daniel Schechter-Saavedra, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS). Although Schechter-Saavedra still thinks the ethnic studies bill is long overdue, he also believes it has room for improvement. This opinion is held by many ethnic groups whose history and perspective are underrepresented in the proposed curriculum. 

Faced with an underlying dilemma, the assembly decided to remove the required curriculum, instead passing the decision down to local communities on what to include in their ethnic studies course. 

“What the students who originally demanded [mandated ethnic studies] wanted were distinct units on all these different people … and the more we did it, the more we realized it was ridiculous to try to sort of teach everything,” said Moran.

The problems that BHS faced in its early days of ethnic studies are a perfect example of the constraints that made the proposed state curriculum in AB 331 so controversial. These included the heavy time constraints, and a surplus of other topics to teach in high schools.

“The way we teach it is way more broad-based; it’s much more like a theory class than a history class,” said Moran. The direction BHS has taken with its newer U9 ethnic studies curriculum is one possible solution to the aforementioned dilemma. Under the new revisions of AB 331, BHS will likely continue to teach the same broader take on the class regardless of what happens to the bill. 

However, efforts to broaden the proposed state curriculum as BHS has done were met with backlash from many. Opponents claim that the revisions have missed the point of the class’s original focus on the history and perspective of Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American people. This leaves the State Assembly, and now the local educators they’ve passed it down to, in a Catch-22.

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