High school students walk past a board illustrating their new school. Photo by Chris Stone
High school students walk past a board illustrating features of their new school building in Logan Heights. Photo by Chris Stone

In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom made California the first state to mandate ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement.

Newsom’s Oct. 8, 2021 letter to members of the state Assembly explained his signature on Assembly Bill 101, which made completion of a one-semester course in ethnic studies a public high school graduation requirement beginning with the 2025-2026 school year for students graduating in 2029-2030.

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In his letter, Newsom wrote, “America is shaped by our shared history, much of it painful and etched with woeful injustice. Students deserve to see themselves in their studies, and  they must understand our nation’s full history if we expect them to one day build a more just society.”

Newsom further stated that ethnic studies courses should not include portions of the initial draft curriculum “due to concerns related to bias, bigotry and discrimination.”

So, ironically, this is a required course intent on addressing bias and bigotry while the original draft curriculum was itself rejected for containing bias and bigotry.

Newsom references “a number of studies [that] have shown that these courses boost student achievement over the long run — especially among students of color.”

Yet the connection between ethnic studies and increased academic achievement may be tenuous.

In a highly technical article written last March titled “Studies fail to support claims of new California Ethnic Studies requirement,” two professors claim that the law “mandating the course for all public high school students is based on two unreplicated studies that distort the data.”

The article’s authors — Richard Sander, distinguished professor of law at UCLA, and Abraham Wyner, professor of statistics and data science at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — call the two studies “astoundingly shoddy works” that are based on “exceptionally messy experimental design.”

The two studies — “commonly cited by advocates to justify the measure” — attempt to show a dramatic increase in academic performance by students who took an ethnic studies course.

But Sander and Wyner contend that the studies’ authors “made multiple serious errors” and the work contains “data patterns that are unbelievable on their face.”

This, however, does not mean there is no value in students learning about other cultures. There is hope that many students will become more engaged in schooling if they are able to see themselves in history lessons. That has merit.

But claims that academic performance will increase for under-represented students if a class in ethnic studies is required may not be valid if those claims are based on flawed scientific studies.

Closing the achievement gap is a stubborn condition in education, but a strong desire to close that gap may be blinding proponents to the need to scrutinize data of questionable value.

The Purpose of Ethnic Studies

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum was adopted by the State Board of Education on March 18, 2021, according to the California Department of Education.

The model curriculum focuses on four disciplines — identified by the Education Department as “African American, Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x, Native American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander studies.”

This “provides an opportunity for students to learn of the histories, cultures, struggles, and contributions to American society of these historically marginalized peoples, which have often been untold in U.S. history courses.”

The purpose of the model curriculum, which is offered only as a guide, is said to be “a step toward rectifying omission of the experiences and cultures of communities within California” by addressing “institutionalized systems of advantage and the causes of racism and other forms of bigotry.”

Ethnic studies, according to the Education Department, can help students acquire a social consciousness and better enable them “to contribute to the public good and help strengthen democratic institutions.”

“The role of our public schools to promote understanding and appreciation of its diverse
population must be an essential part of the curriculum offered to every student.”

The Education Department’s general principles suggest inclusion of “information of the ethnic studies movement, specifically the Third World Liberation Front and its significance in the establishment of ethnic studies as a discipline and work in promoting diversity and inclusion within higher education.”

The Third World Liberation Front was formed in 1969 by a multiracial coalition of UC Berkeley students, a movement that helped establish ethnic studies as an interdisciplinary field in the U.S., according to the movement’s website.

The purpose was to “demand that the university acknowledge the histories of communities of color.”

Funding Quandary

 There’s clearly a mandate by the state for educational agencies to develop an ethnic studies course. But can this be required before full funding has been allocated?

In an editorial featured on EdSource, author Tammi Rossman-Benjamin argues that AB 101, the bill that mandates ethnic studies, cannot be enacted until funding has been approved by the legislature.

In addition to providing details of the requirements for an ethnic studies class, the text of AB 101 also includes this: “These provisions would become operative only upon an appropriation of funds by the Legislature for these purposes in the annual Budget Act or another statute.”

As of this writing, the legislature has not yet approved the required funding, which the Senate Appropriations Committee estimates to be approximately $276 million annually.

Because the bill would add new duties to local educational agencies, it would constitute a state-mandated program, and the California Constitution requires reimbursement to local agencies and school districts for certain costs.

Insertion of the savings clause — that the requirement becomes operative only upon an appropriation of funds by the Legislature — “indicated legislators’ legitimate fiscal concerns,” Rossman-Benjamin said, especially in the face of “students’ abysmal academic performance and the prospect of severe belt-tightening.”

Rossman-Benjamin, a former lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz and co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative to combat antisemitism, argues that expensive educational initiatives that don’t demonstrate academic benefits should not be implemented.

An Unfunded Mandate

The state’s analysis of the measure says the $276 million cost is for “adding a new graduation requirement in ethnic studies on top of other existing requirements, rather than replacing an existing course.”

“This estimate assumes that 1,686 additional teachers would need to be hired at an average salary of $83,000 (plus benefits). This estimate also assumes indirect costs of about $37 million and an additional $54.3 million for instructional materials.” Other unanticipated expenditures may arise.

Although ethnic studies is mandated as a graduation requirement for all public high schools, and is technically an unfunded mandate, $50 million has been made available from the state’s general fund for districts to begin development and implementation of an ethnic studies course.

This is a direct apportionment of one-time funding to educational agencies with students in grades 9-12, according to Scott Roark, Education Department public information officer, referring to Section 132 of Assembly Bill 130, the education trailer bill for the 2021-2022 state budget.

But the $50 million in one-time funding is less than one-fifth the amount the Education Department estimates it will cost the state each year for the course.

Despite the funding dilemma, ethnic studies is likely a done deal.

School districts and county offices of education are gearing up for the new course, and both the University of California and California State University systems are expecting this as a requirement for high school graduation.

For many constituents, it’s a contentious issue that has little to do with whether or not it’s funded by the state. It’s the specifics of the content material and how the course will be taught that concerns many.

And that heated debate will undoubtedly continue, as school districts proceed with preparations for the class.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.