Ethnic Studies and Private Schools

After a contentious battle that raged on for years (and according to some, decades) the California Legislature has passed, and Governor Gavin Newsom has signed a bill making completion of a semester-long course in ethnic studies a requirement for graduation from a public high school. The graduation requirement will take effect in the 2029-30 school year, and public high schools must begin offering ethic studies courses in 2025-26. John Fensterwald reports the story for EdSource, here, and Politico covers the development, here.

Last year the Legislature passed similar legislation, only to see it nixed by Mr. Newsom, who expressed concern in his veto message that signature of the bill “…would require ethnic studies to be taught in high school at a time when there is much uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum for ethnic studies.” The Governor’s allusion to ‘uncertainty’ was a euphemism for the firestorm of protest that arose when the initial draft of a model ethnic studies curriculum was brought before the state’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC). At issue was the very meaning and scope of ‘ethnic studies’. Proponents of the initial draft, a group led by professors of ethnic studies drawn from various state institutions of higher education, see the discipline as one that should be largely limited to four groups: Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans. Opponents, including Armenian, Jewish, and Sikh groups, protested that the draft model curriculum marginalized or ignored the experiences of their respective ethnic groups.

Against this quarrelsome background, the eventual enactment of AB 101 represented something of a triumph for political negotiation and compromise. The achievement was expressed in a statement from the bill’s author, Assemblymember Jose Medina (D. – Riverside):

“The work that went into designing the final version of AB 101 embodies the very purpose of ethnic studies: the coming together of five diverse caucuses to share their stories, empower one another, and to represent the communities they come from.”

To make it across the legislative finish line the initial draft model curriculum had been rewritten in a manner that made it considerably more inclusive. Its most contentious content was either deleted or softened, and a highly politicized glossary was jettisoned. A second public comment period led to further modifications.

As AB 101 made its way through the Legislature, additional compromise was achieved, and certain concessions secured. Late in the going, as the bill reposed in the Senate Appropriations Committee, the following rather remarkable provision was added:

“It is the intent of the Legislature that local educational agencies, including charter schools, consider that, pursuant to Section 51226.7, the Instructional Quality Commission undertook a lengthy, thorough, deliberative, and inclusive process before submitting a model curriculum in ethnic studies to the state board. To the extent that local educational agencies, including charter schools, choose to locally develop an ethnic studies program for approval by their governing board or governing body, it is the intent of the Legislature that local educational agencies not use the portions of the draft model curriculum that were not adopted by the Instructional Quality Commission due to concerns related to bias, bigotry, and discrimination.”

In announcing his signature of the bill, Governor Newsom made an oblique reference to the aforementioned element in declaring that the law “provides a number of safeguards to ensure that courses will be free from bias or bigotry and appropriate for all students.” Another safeguard baked into the law makes it mandatory that any ethnic studies course proposed for adoption by a public school district will:

“…first be presented at a public meeting of the governing board of the school district or the governing body of the charter school, and shall not be approved until a subsequent public meeting of the governing board or governing body at which the public has had the opportunity to express its views on the proposed course.”

Such “safeguards” have not sat well with the authors of the original draft model ethnic studies curriculum. In fact, a group of academics and teachers who participated in the fashioning of the original draft are now organizing training sessions in the implementation of what they are calling the “Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” (i.e., the original draft). In light of such lingering disgruntlement with the concessions required to write AB 101 into law, readers can expect to see a reprise of the controversy accompanying the Instructional Quality Commission hearings as local school districts deliberate the content of the ethnic studies courses to be introduced in their schools.

AB 101’s provisions are applicable to public schools and public charter schools, only. But if you think private high schools won’t be impacted by the new ethnic studies course requirement, think again!

To gain admission to a University of California campus, students attending private schools must complete a series of UC-approved high school courses collectively known as the “A-G Subject Requirements.” A course in Ethnic Studies will almost certainly be added to the list of currently required history courses. Private high schools wishing to fulfill the “A-G” requirements will not only need to offer instruction in ethnic studies, but will need to submit course outlines to the University of California for approval.

What will UC require of such courses? Keep in mind that: a) the “safeguards” written into AB 101 apply to public school districts, but not to the University of California; and, b) the academy is home to the most strident defenders of the more limited and highly politicized conception of ethnic studies reflected in the original draft model curriculum.

Such observations invite concern and evoke memories of a lawsuit brought against the University of California in 2006 by the Association of Christian Schools International. At issue was UC’s rejection of various college preparatory courses offered in ACSI-affiliated high schools owing to the utilization of textbooks containing religious content. (Among the disputed courses was a history course.) ACSI argued that UC’s refusal to approve the courses under its “A-G” framework constituted “viewpoint discrimination,” and thus ran afoul of First Amendment protections.

In supporting ACSI’s objection, the California Association of Private School Organizations took a somewhat different tack. In rejecting the ACSI schools’ courses, CAPSO argued, the University of California failed to adduce a shred of empirical evidence in support of its contention that the utilization of the textbooks in question would place students at an academic disadvantage if admitted to a UC campus. Ironically, it was the University of California whose argument appeared to be grounded in faith, and ACSI that demanded empirical justification in support of UC’s decision. ACSI ultimately lost when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take up the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ affirmation of the U.S. District Court’s summary judgment in favor of UC.

This issues attendant to the teaching of ethnic studies may be different, but the conditions for a renewal of the controversy over the reach of UC’s authority to dictate a private school’s curriculum are now in plain view. Stay tuned!

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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