America feels more divided than ever, and California, home to 40 million people from around the world, has suffered from the consequences of this ever-increasing discord. Addressing this head-on, Governor Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101, which mandates ethnic studies as a graduation requirement for all high school students, and adds essential guardrails that directly address concerns made by many communities across California.
This new mandate is a step in the right direction, fostering mutual respect and healing divisions that have fractured the Golden State. In this article, we’ll explore the development of this new law and highlight some key facts that have been left out of the debate over the past several years, including:
- Ethnic studies activists are lobbying local school districts to adopt the original and very problematic ethnic studies model curriculum – and before AB 101, there was nothing in state law to prevent this from happening.
- Local school districts are already enacting their own ethnic studies mandates and graduation requirements. The Los Angeles Unified School District passed its mandate last year.
- As enacted, AB 101 establishes essential guardrails statewide that prevent ethnic studies from marginalizing or delegitimizing any community when implemented at the local level.
- A veto of AB 101 would have left dangerous gaps in the law and would have made local efforts to bring ethnic studies into the mainstream much more difficult.
Hate is on the Rise in California
In a recently released report, California’s Attorney General announced that hate crimes jumped by 31% in 2020. California’s Black community represented the highest share of victims, an 87% increase from last year. Hate crimes against Asian Americans doubled, and attacks against Jewish Americans represented 63% of religiously motivated hate crimes.
Since 2019, California’s Jewish community has been justifiably concerned about the role that certain versions of ethnic studies might play in contributing to myths, misunderstandings, and negative stereotypes about Jewish people.
Here’s How it All Started
The original version ethnic studies curriculum was widely criticized. The LA Times called it “jargon-filled and all-too-PC,” the California Legislative Jewish Caucus asserted that it contained “highly-problematic content about Jews and Israelis,” and Governor Newsom promised it would “never see the light of day.”
Governor Newsom kept his promise, and after significant engagement between California’s Jewish community and the Department of Education, a new version of the curriculum was developed that largely addressed our community’s concerns. It wasn’t perfect, but that’s often a consequence of building consensus.
Between the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions, and following the release and acceptance of the revised ethnic studies curriculum, the legislature drafted a new mandate in AB 101 requiring California’s high school students to complete a one-semester course as a graduation requirement. At the same time, a movement consisting of the authors of the original Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum emerged and began advocating in favor of their so-called “Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” (LESMC).
Here’s What Veto Supporters Might Not Have Told You
The new LESMC movement began to lobby school boards across the state to adopt the original draft. There was nothing in state law preventing districts from using whatever curriculum version they preferred.
Ethnic Studies Graduation Already Mandated in School Districts
Some school districts did not wait for the State to take action and passed their own ethnic studies mandate. The Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest school district, passed an ethnic studies mandate and graduation requirement last year. It became clear that with or without AB 101, the ethnic studies mandate was moving forward at the local level.
In response, the Jewish Caucus included guardrails in AB 101 to prevent the adoption of the original ethnic studies curriculum and protect against the bigotry present in the draft version. These guardrails ensure that any adopted ethnic studies curriculum:
- be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds,
- not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons, and
- not contain the portions of the draft model curriculum that the Instructional Quality Commission did not adopt due to bias, bigotry, and discrimination concerns.
Despite the development of these guardrails, some in our Jewish community still opposed AB 101 and called upon Governor Newsom to veto the bill. However, this view dangerously ignored the reality on the ground.
Advocates from the LESMC movement never stopped their lobbying, and they continue to advocate for the problematic ethnic studies curriculum, district by district. If Governor Newsom had vetoed AB 101, these vital guardrails would not be in place to protect against adopting this deeply flawed model ethnic studies curriculum.
In developing policy related to ethnic studies, State leaders have engaged the public and remained consistent in adopting legislation that strengthens educational standards statewide while preserving local control. AB 101 deftly maintains the balance of power between the Capitol and school districts.
Critics from some corners of our Jewish community have claimed that we cannot lobby every school district. But, that’s irrelevant, the issue has already made its way to local districts whether we like it or not. And, vetoing AB 101 was never the solution. A veto would have left a dangerous gap in the law, it would not stop proponents of the original ethnic studies curriculum from continuing their local advocacy, and it would not have prevented local school districts from passing their own local mandates, just like LAUSD did last year.
The effort that we have seen in our community encouraging the Governor to veto AB 101 would be better-spent organizing, building alliances, and focusing on school districts.
Education policy is ever-evolving, and we must all remain deeply engaged and work together to shape its future. AB 101 isn’t perfect, but it represents significant progress towards creating a better California for all, including our vital and vibrant Jewish community.