On Thursday, the California Board of Education approved a statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high schools, with board members voting unanimously 11-0 in favor of the new lesson plans.
First planned in 2018, the statewide ethnic studies program curriculum has gone through numerous changes in the past three years. Originally focused solely on the ethnic studies of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American groups, many groups soon fought to be included, including Jews, Arabs, Sikhs, and Armenians. These groups were quickly added, with the board noting that they all contributed to California.
However, this soon fanned the flames of more fights over what was to be included, with Asian groups arguing that they were still being largely discounted and Jewish and Arab groups fighting over how the other would be presented. After the first draft was released in 2019, both groups fought over the definition of anti-Semitism and how Israel should be presented, among other issues. Asian groups also challenged whether or not if Arabs should have their own part of the curriculum as Arab countries fell under the geographic banner of Asia.
Many educators also warned that attributing the problems solely to certain groups would only lead to more tensions and would undue racial understanding and empathy that happens organically in the diverse California school system.
But despite lingering tensions, as evidenced by over 150 callers pleading before the board for hours on Thursday not to pass the curriculum due to charges that it was anti-Asian, anti-Jewish, and anti-Arab, the 900-page Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum was ultimately passed. Many board members noted that the George Floyd protests of last year and the recent upswing of violence against Asian Americans in California proved how much the curriculum was needed.
Based off of college-level ethnic studies courses, the final curriculum is centered on four main groups: Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. Additionally, Jewish Americans, Arabs, Sikhs, and Armenian Americans are also represented with courses.
The 33 non-mandatory lesson plans, which can be tailored to fit the ethnic makeup of respective communities and school districts, include lessons such as discussing police brutality incidents against blacks in relation to Black Lives Matter, Japanese American internment during WWII, and Korean American and black strife during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Many notable ethnic leaders praised the boards passage on Thursday and Friday, noting that the curriculum will improve racial relations and racial understanding by looking at the history and struggles of groups not usually seen in history classes.
“This is a pivotal moment in our California education history,” noted Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who challenged Japanese internment all the way to the Supreme Court in Korematsu V. United States. “As my father said, ‘Stand up for what is right.’ Prejudice is ignorance, and the most powerful weapon we have is education.”
Famed labor leader Dolores Huerta also threw her support behind the curriculum before the vote on Thursday, noting the importance of such classes for students in the state.
“Si, Se Puede!” exclaimed Huerta on Thursday. “We can make it happen. And it’s time.”
Continued criticism over the new voluntary ethnic studies curriculum
However, many educational leaders noted that the passage of the curriculum doesn’t mean that schools have to use it, with many noting that ethnic studies is already widely taught throughout California without the optional curriculum.
“This is still ultimately pointless as it’s not mandatory,” Paul Barker, a former educator and current private school classroom advisor, explained to the Globe. “First of all, private schools can still do their own thing, so that’s a non-issue for many already. I believe the term the school board used for this was ‘voluntary guidance.’ But the big thing is that the lesson plans can be fit for communities. This already happens. I’ve helped advise schools in predominantly black areas where they were teaching young kids who (former NAACP leader) Roy Wilkins was. It’s impossible to find a classroom in California that doesn’t already cover Latino issues and leaders such as (former labor activist) Cesar Chavez. Many LA schools have Jewish or Armenian topics already in. We already have this. So even if a school board chooses some of these lesson plans approved of on Thursday, chances are they already have something close to it.”
“What this is going to do is simply allow different areas to choose what groups they want to focus on. So while regular history class will be there, these lesson plans will give it a different ethnic view and personalize it.”
“Now if ethnic studies is made mandatory, as it nearly was last year before being vetoed by the Governor, then it becomes a more serious discussion, as it would physically add a class requirement for graduation. But right now, it’s just simply optional, with whatever ethnic groups being represented in a certain place just getting a little more focus in the classroom.
“But it is worrying because all of these fights we saw among ethnic groups over the curriculum will now happen more locally, and that may cause some issues if taught.”
However, state leaders also acknowledged these issues on Friday, specifically noting that they expect criticism to continue over the curriculum.
“This criticism will continue. I can guarantee you that,” said former Assemblywoman California Secretary of State Shirley Weber on Thursday. “We will not find the perfect curriculum, but we have one that is strong. Perfect should not be the enemy of good.”
Upon passage of the ethnic studies lesson plans on Thursday, California became the first state to have a statewide ethnic curriculum in the United States. AB 101, a reintroduced bill to make an ethnic studies class mandatory for graduation in California, is currently awaiting a committee hearing in the Assembly.