Pre-coronavirus shutdown: A middle school student walks by a Black History Month display on her way to class. (Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Sensing the timing is now right, the author of a bill that would require all students to take ethnic studies to graduate from high school is pressing Senate leaders to free up the bill and send it to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature before the end of August. The governor already has on his desk another bill that would make a course in ethnic studies a prerequisite for a California State University diploma.

Assembly Bill 331, by Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, would first apply to the graduating class of 2025, giving school districts and charter schools several years to phase in ethnic studies. But he and members of the Black, Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander legislative caucuses are pressing ahead with it now, capitalizing on the tail winds of widespread public sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement and frank discussions of racism.

California would be the first state to mandate ethnic studies as a high school requirement. AB 331 would require at a minimum a one-semester course that would be based on an ethnic studies model curriculum that districts could use to fashion their own version. In 2016, the Legislature ordered that the curriculum be created to encourage more districts to teach ethnic studies.

In a press conference that Medina organized on Wednesday (Aug. 12) with members of those caucuses, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, referred to the police killing of George Floyd in explaining why the Legislature should act.

“AB 331 is a clear way and a great way to make sure we are pricking students’ consciousness before they enter adulthood and before we have to see any more videos of people dying,” she said. “The time is now to answer the call for justice in a meaningful way.”

A hearing on the bill is tentatively set for Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, drafters of the model ethnic studies curriculum, have been laboring for over a year to design a course that encourages all students to examine their own ethnic origins, but concentrates on those groups that have been most oppressed by racism.

Before the State Board of Education adopts the model curriculum next March, it will undergo two more public comment periods and further vetting by a committee that will make its recommendations to the state board.

That process continued on Thursday, when members of the Instructional Quality Commission, which serves the state board, took their first look at a revision of the draft curriculum and heard several hours of sometimes contentious testimony. The California Department of Education shelved the first version last August amid accusations that it was ideological, and that its chapter on Arab American studies included an analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that Jews said was anti-Semitic. The model curriculum would include sample lessons and a guide for instruction, but districts would be free to fashion their own versions.

The new version is softened and stresses inclusion of the ethnic experiences of all students in a local context. It is stripped of a glossary with terms like “hxrstory” and “hxrstorically” that baffled some readers but that members of the commission on Thursday said should be restored out of recognition that they’re words that many students already know and use.

Arab American studies

A future lesson plan on Arab Americans will cover only their experiences in this country.

But many of the 1-minute testimonies were familiar critiques: Sikhs in particular and other callers complained that their stories and ongoing discrimination would be given short shrift. Jewish immigrants from Iraq, Iran and the Mideast said their lives would be excluded from Arab American studies. A letter submitted from Jewish groups called for safeguards to ensure that materials and curricula would not become “tools of political indoctrination that promote hatred and incite harm against any race, religion, group or individual.”

At the same time, activists from the groups that would be the focus of an ethnic studies course — African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans — criticized efforts to “water down” the content by shifting the focus away from the struggles and accomplishments of those four groups.

“We are a movement, not a show,” said one commenter, who called for a return to the original draft with its “anti-racist, decolonialist lens.”

Others called for re-inclusion of the Palestinian issue.

Medina, a former ethnic studies teacher whose former wife is Jewish, agreed with some criticisms of the first draft and put off consideration of his bill for a year until it had been revised. He said in an email that he was satisfied with the progress so far on the model curriculum.

“The model curriculum is still a draft and in the early stages of the input process. I trust this process and believe we will end up with a strong ethnic studies framework that will provide a solid structure for educators to build off as they bring ethnic studies to life in their classrooms,” he said.

The Assembly passed AB 331 last year 63-8. It’s been dormant in the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose chairman, Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, has wide discretion over which bills with an impact on the state budget to move forward to the full Senate. A Senate analysis in 2019 said mandating an additional graduation requirement would be a mandate, with a cost to the state budget in the “low millions of dollars” annually.

Portantino does not comment on his positions on bills before the day of a vote, a staff member said. If AB 331 does get out of the committee, the full Senate would likely pass it and send it to Newsom.

Ethnic studies has its roots in a student protest movement during the 1960s at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. It has always focused on the study of the history, culture and struggles of the same four “marginalized” groups. In February, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that he had concluded the state’s model curriculum should as well.

Thurmond said that weekly webinars this summer on each of the four groups, led by inspirational California civil rights leaders — farmworkers leader Dolores Huerta, Karen Korematsu and James Ramos, the first Native American to serve in the Legislature — reaffirmed his view. Many students attended, he said. “They want to see history not covered in history books, to read about contributions of many who have made this state and nation great.”

A challenge has been to create a model curriculum that is approachable and relevant to students in Chico as well as Compton, where students have different backgrounds and experiences. That requires making time for all students to explore their ethnicities, religions and family histories, while devoting the bulk of the course on four primary groups. And it also entails looking at America through a critical lens.

“Ethnic studies will make people uncomfortable and if not, then it has not done its job,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, a member of the commission who also created an ethnic studies program as a professor at San Diego State. “It was founded because the current system crushed people; to not recognize how deep is racism is to deny ethnic studies.”

But the chairman of the commission, Jose Iniguez, a retired school administrator, cautioned that the model curriculum should be an easy-to-use guidance that should be kept “as neutral and straightforward as possible.” If it reads as a “politicized” document and a criticism of capitalism it will “alienate more than it attracts,” he said.

If the commission makes significant changes to the latest draft, it will be in November, after the next round of public comment, leaving time for further debate on some fundamental issues.

By then, if Medina’s bill become law, the commission will be reviewing a model curriculum designed not for optional course, but for a mandated one.

Story originally published by EdSource.