Is the third time the charm? Ethnic Studies in California

Lisa Romero is an Associate Professor at California State University Sacramento.

Assembly Member Jose Medina recently reintroduced Ethnic Studies (AB 101) to the California State Legislature. The bill would require California high schools to offer Ethnic Studies courses beginning in 2025 – 2026 and make it a high school graduation requirement for the class of 2030. This is third time that Medina has introduced the bill. It was first introduced in 2019, but sometimes bitter conflict surrounding the curriculum, most notably about who and what’s included, and who and what’s excluded, and charges and counter charges of bias and discrimination, led Medina to withdraw the bill to provide time to more fully develop the curriculum and resolve these and other issues. He reintroduced the bill for a second time last year. After amendments delaying the implementation to the graduating class of 2030 and allowing districts to develop local, context-sensitive courses rather than following a state curriculum, it passed both houses of the legislature and landed on Governor Newsom’s desk in September 2020. Because a similar bill, AB 1460, authored by then Assembly Member Shirley Weber, making Ethnic studies a graduation requirement for the California State Universities, passed and was signed into law by the Governor, many were surprised when the Governor Newsom refused to sign what some considered the high school companion piece.

In his veto message, Newsom said that he while valued Ethnic Studies, and recognized that progress had been made to address concerns about the curriculum, further work was needed to ensure that the state model was balanced, fair, and inclusive of all communities. In other words, he was in favor of Ethnic Studies in theory, but in practice it was too politically risky. Also consider that by this time, the State was battling raging wild fires; schools, business, and the nation were struggling with COVID; and California’s budget surplus and positive economic outlook was evaporating. Privately, however, the Governor told Medina to re-introduce the bill in the next session.

Medina notes that he ran for Assembly three times before he won, optimistic that the third time might be the charm for Ethnic Studies as well. And he has a bevy of supporters that hope he is right. 

What are the chances that the third time is the charm? Let’s consider the wider-context. California budget projections have improved, (at least for now) fires are not ravaging the state, the rate of new COVID-19 infections is on the decline, and vaccinations have begun. But, COVID is still rampant and the vaccine rollout is uneven. Most public schools remain closed, or are struggling to open and stay open. Meanwhile Governor Newsom is locked in a so-far-losing battle with the teachers’ unions who are pushing for all teachers to be vaccinated before face-to-face learning resumes, something the State concedes is not likely possible before June.  Add to this that Governor Newsom is facing a recall effort. And, all of that aside, the tensions underlying the curriculum controversies are quintessential and, in many ways, reflective of ethnic and racial conflict writ large in America. 

So, what would it take for the third time to be the charm? Understanding that Ethnic Studies is important for all Californians. Ethnic Studies isn’t just for Black kids, Brown kids, or Asian kids. We all benefit from knowing history, and understanding the rich diversity of experiences, and contributions to the economic and cultural fiber of our nation. There are few advocates more passionate or better than Medina at explaining the importance of Ethnic Studies.  Putting Ethnic Studies in the context of the violence at the nation’s Capital, “we cannot afford to wait any longer as civil unrest, racial tensions have risen across the nation. Ethnic Studies provides hope for fostering understanding and unity.”