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California ethnic studies legislation advances, awaits Newsom’s signature

The bill mandates that high school graduates in the state complete at least one semester of an ethnic studies class

Jeff Chiu/AP

In this March 12, 2020, file photo, George Washington High School stands in San Francisco. California's State Board of Education votes Thursday, March 18, 2021, on a long-anticipated model ethnic studies curriculum for high schools across the state.

The California State Legislature voted to advance A.B. 101, which mandates the teaching of ethnic studies for high school graduates, following the state board of education’s approval of a suggested curriculum earlier this year. The legislation now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

The bill requires students graduating from California high schools in 2030 and after to have completed a one-semester ethnic studies class, and mandates that high schools, including charter schools, offer the class as of the 2025-2026 academic year.

The legislation does not specify a curriculum educators should use in the classroom, though the model curriculum approved earlier this year by the state board of education has already been made available to educators across the state. 

A first draft of the ethnic studies curriculum came under fire from Jewish educators and activists across the state for its promotion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and its omission of lesson plans about antisemitism. The curriculum approved by the education department earlier this year does not include references to the BDS movement, and includes two lesson plans on antisemitism.

Some of the authors of the curriculum’s first draft requested that their names be removed from the final version, alleging that they “were not fully consulted throughout the process of the curriculum development and significant parts of the curricular text do not fully reflect the work of past or present Ethnic Studies teachers/educators.” 

The legislation approved on Wednesday includes amendments backed by the California Jewish Legislative Caucus that prevent the teaching of the original draft and mandates that the curriculum be “appropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, pupils with disabilities, and English learners.”

In a statement on Wednesday evening, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel and Sen. Scott Wiener, respectively the caucus’s chair and vice chair, applauded both the passage of the legislation and the inclusion of the amendments.

“It is our sincere hope that this course will provide an opportunity for young Californians to deepen their understanding of our society’s complex history when it comes to issues of race and diversity,” according to a statement from Gabriel and Wiener. “These amendments — which expressly prohibit the use of curriculum that was rejected because of concerns about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias — strengthen the firm guardrails included in AB 101 and leave no doubt that hate and bigotry against Jews, Israelis, or any other community is prohibited by law and cannot be taught in our classrooms.”

The bill’s passage was also supported by Jewish activists in the state.

“We applaud the efforts of Gabriel, Wiener and the Jewish caucus to include amendments intended to prevent the teaching of the odious first draft of the model curriculum, which included antisemitism,” Tyler Gregory, the executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, told JI. “We expect challenges to come at the district level, but the amended version of this bill, which now prevents discrimination by nationality, will present our detractors with a more difficult climb.” 

Newsom, who is facing a recall election on September 15, is expected to sign the legislation into law before the October 10 deadline. “Politically, he’ll want to do it before the recall date to energize communities of color,” a California political insider told JI.

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