California Assemblymember Jose Medina says that he would have introduced his latest bill regardless of who is in the White House, but the fact that Donald Trump is President “adds to the impetus” for doing it now.
The measure, known as AB 2772, would mandate that the roughly 1.7 million high school students throughout the state complete an ethnic studies course in order to graduate, just as they are required to study biology, geography and physical education. If the bill becomes law, the requirement will begin in the 2023-2024 school year.
“Without knowledge of other cultural experiences and the history of those ethnic and cultural groups,” says Medina, a Democrat from the Riverside area who previously worked as a teacher, “I don’t think you can call yourself an educated person.”
The measure comes at a time when other jurisdictions around the country have been adopting—and fighting over—such curricula, which zeroes in on the history and perspectives of minority groups such as Native Americans and Latino Americans. In 2017, Oregon became the first state to require K-12 students to learn such material. As of last year, high schools in Indiana are also mandated by law to offer ethnic or racial studies courses. In Arizona, Republican lawmakers tried to ban such material through a controversial law, which a federal judge ruled in December to be unconstitutional.
Those who support such courses have argued for decades that history classes in America are too often biased toward a white, male, Eurocentric perspective. People like Medina position ethnic studies classes as a correction to that, as well as a way for every student to see themselves in the material they encounter at school. In California, the majority of students in public schools are Latino — around 55% — while about one-quarter are white. “A student’s learning about their own history, their own culture,” Medina says, “that’s empowering.”
Critics of such classes, like the Republican lawmakers in Arizona, have argued that such curricula can foment racial tensions, drawing thicker lines between ethnic groups and teaching students to view individuals around them as either the oppressed or the oppressors. As an official working on ethnic studies curricula in California put it, the field “gets this sort of bad rap for being pigeon-holed as a form of ‘oppression studies.’”
It’s an especially loaded debate these days, as race has become a charged topic in national politics. But critical arguments are unlikely to hold much water in California, a liberal state that recently adopted new history textbooks that include LGBT-focused material. “We do not need to fear knowledge,” Medina says. “When we offer students a better understanding, a more complete understanding of our nation’s history, that is nothing to fear. It is something we should celebrate.”
The California Department of Education is already busy working on a model curriculum for ethnic studies to help guide schools in developing their own courses. (Some 200 middle and high schools, out of more than 2,600 in the state, already have them on offer.) That work was mandated by a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016; the guidelines are due to be adopted by 2020. As of now, schools are only “encouraged” to offer such classes when that work is done. But Medina believes that his bill, which he introduced with two co-sponsors, will make it an imperative.
“There is a void of teaching what I think is essential information,” he says.