Policymakers aim to mandate ethnic studies in K-12 and CSU
(Calif.) Flip through a typical textbook on California history cover-to-cover and you’ll see mention of Cesar Chavez, but you probably won’t find mention of Harry Gamboa–a young man who lead walkouts in the 1960s from Los Angeles schools in protest of high dropout rates, crumbling facilities, and lack of Mexican American teachers.
Lawmakers said they want to ensure students have the chance to learn about important figures in state and U.S. history that they may otherwise not in current history classes.
Two bills calling for K-12 schools and the California State University system to include as part of their graduation requirements a course in ethnic studies, which dive deeper into the histories of different racial and ethnic groups, passed Assembly committee hearing Wednesday.
Throughout the debate, multiple lawmakers posed the same question: why has it taken this long?
“Ethnic studies has been in existence for 50 years, but still, if we go to classrooms today and pick up a U.S. History book we will see just a few pages–perhaps on Cesar Chavez, or Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside and author of AB 331.
His bill would mandate that ethnic studies be a graduation requirement in all high schools beginning with the 2024-25 school year.
“I would say that Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King Jr., as important as they are in our nation’s history, are not the extent of African American or Chicano history,” Medina told education committee members. “And we’ve now seen 50 years where nothing has changed. We are seeing some districts teaching ethnic studies, but I do think it’s the job of the Legislature to look at things holistically and to say this needs to be taught.”
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego presented a separate bill–AB 1460–that would require the same of CSUs beginning with the 2020-21 school year.
Ethnic studies courses typically focus on the historical experiences and perspectives of people of color within the U.S.–such as the contributions of Mexican-Americans, or the discrimination faced by Japanese-Americans during World War II.
A 2016 report from Stanford University found that a year-long 9th grade ethnic studies course piloted in several high schools in the San Francisco Unified School District course was associated with a 21 percentage point increase in attendance, as well as a boost in GPA by 1.4 grade points.
Other studies have shown participation in ethnic studies can improve graduation rates, student self-esteem and graduation rates.
California policymakers are in the process of developing model curriculum in ethnic studies, as called for under a bill signed by former-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016.
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda and member of the education committee, said that while he supports the expansion of ethnic studies, the actions already being taken by education department staff appear to be working toward that goal. For instance, he noted that the State Board of Education is on track to adopt the model curricula in ethnic studies by its March 2020 deadline.
“The dilemma for me is that we typically ask if there’s a compelling state need for us to get involved,” Glazer said. “You have to look and ask what the progress is of the work getting done, and if there are roadblocks to it that we should be aware of. Have school districts had the chance to enact this and not taken those steps? These are all the questions that go through my head.”
Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento also questioned making ethnic studies a graduation requirement through legislative action.
Medina said he is working hand-in-hand with the California Department of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond–a sponsor of the bill–to get both things done at the same time. When the curriculum is ready, schools would have ample time to prepare and train their teachers to ensure ethnic studies can become a graduation requirement in 2024-25, he said.
Committee chair Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino and Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, agreed that Medina and Assemblywoman Weber were right to bring their bills forward.
“There comes a time when the Legislature has to step in because it’s not getting done, and I think this is one of those times,” Durazo said, noting that she of course “would prefer that history books included us without having ethnic studies required.”
Meanwhile, Weber’s AB 1460 calls for the CSU system to require one 3-unit course in ethnic studies as an undergraduate graduation requirement.
Though Glazer raised many of the same concerns as he did with Medina’s bill, Pan expressed frustration that progress hadn’t been made in the three years since a statewide taskforce convened by CSU Chancellor Timothy White recommended making ethnic studies a general education requirement.
Weber said that her decades of experience working in the CSU system and serving on the committees that would have the power to move an action like this forward has shown her that without legislative intervention, ethnic studies would not become a graduation requirement.
Ethnic studies only came into existence 50 years ago because students vehemently protested for it, she said.
“We complain about all the hatred in California, we complain about the lack of information people have, we complain about students not being challenged to think differently,” Weber said. “Ethnic studies came into existence not because people thought it was a good academic idea, or because they thought it was time–it was because students were burning buildings on campus. We have to move forward to do something different and challenge the system.”
Both AB 331 and AB 1460 were ultimately approved by the committee.