Tony Thurmond at a press conference
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond speaks at a press conference in 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond recently hosted a webinar on ethnic studies, a new course requirement for school districts serving students in grades 9-12 who will graduate high school in 2029-2030.

The webinar’s purpose was to inform attendees about the reasons for a course in ethnic studies, provide background information, and suggest how to move forward with professional and curricular development.

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Assembly Bill 101, which requires the one-semester course, was signed into law in October 2021 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. California is the first state to require this course.

“America is shaped by our shared history, much of it painful and etched with woeful injustice,” wrote Newsom in approving the AB 101 legislation. “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.”

San Diego’s Shirley Weber, current California Secretary of State and founder in 1972 of the Africana Studies Department at San Diego State University, said ethnic studies gives white students “a better perspective of the importance of Black history” and helps them become “a different kind of professional.”

“When you teach basic white history, you’re teaching them to love their country,” said Weber on the webinar. “When you don’t have that in your own history, you wonder if you made a contribution to the world or made a difference.”

She said the class can create “a different sense of ownership and pride” and “will empower our students immensely. They learn a greater sense of purpose in their lives.”

Jose Medina, a state Assemblymember from 2012 to 2022 who authored AB 101, said on the webinar that ethnic studies has “the power to transform students’ lives.”

“Students are hungry to know their full history,” and those who see themselves “reflected in the curriculum do much better,” he said.

Other leaders who spoke on the Webinar were:

  • Dolores Huerta, president of Dolores Huerta Foundation and co-founder of United Farm Workers Association
  • Karen Korematsu, executive director  of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute
  • Manufou Liaiga-Anoa’I, executive director of the Pacific Islander Community Partnership

Rejected First Draft

In 2016, Newsom authorized development of an ethnic studies model curriculum. But the first effort was met with fierce objections and was rejected by the State Board of Education due to concerns related to bias, bigotry and discrimination. Most often cited was its inclusion of blatant antisemitic and anti-Zionist views.

“A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all,” wrote Board President Linda Darling-Hammond in an Aug. 12, 2019 letter. “The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”

After several revisions, a final model curriculum was adopted by the Board of Education in March 2021.

Jennifer Bentley of the Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division of the California Department of Education, stressed during the webinar that old drafts of the model curriculum should not be used.

“There is one Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that is approved by the State Board of Education,” according to curriculum division. “The (board) will continue to specify this in all of our trainings, workshops, and communications around ethnic studies implementation.”

An Aug. 23, 2023 letter written by Brooks Allen, education advisor to the governor and executive director of the Board of Education, advised school districts that some vendors “have begun promoting curriculum for ethnic studies” that “may not meet the requirements of AB 101.”

The letter warned districts to “closely scrutinize” their course materials to be sure they conform with the established criteria.

Despite objections from a number of Jewish organizations that remain concerned about approved ethnic studies content, the local Anti-Defamation League is not one of them.

Fabienne Perlov, Regional Director of the San Diego ADL, said in an email, “[T]eaching ethnic studies is an important part of a student’s learning experience and promotes equity and inclusiveness by deepening their understanding of American history.”

But she emphasized that districts’ courses must be “free of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias.”

“Adopting curricula drawn from the final state-approved (model curriculum) ensures that overt and subtle anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias does not make its way into classrooms,” Perlov said.

San Diego County Office of Education

Thurmond, in the webinar, mentioned the state’s close collaboration with the San Diego County Office of Education. The county office was awarded a contract from the state to lead professional learning in ethnic studies.

Talisa Sullivan, the county office’s executive director of equity, said the goal was to help educators support and expand ethnic studies courses, and to curate, develop and expand ethnic studies resources.

“We are currently vetting resources … so that schools and districts can access [those] resources to support their ethnic studies implementation,” she said.

The county office hosted three professional learning opportunities and will host four more this year, she said.

About earlier versions of the model curriculum, Sullivan said the county is utilizing and promoting only the state-adopted version and is the only one that should be used.

The San Diego Unified School District school board voted in April 2019 to require an ethnic studies course as a high school graduation requirement. Professional development was offered to staff in the summer of 2020.

SDUSD currently offers more than 10 courses in ethnic studies that fulfill the graduation requirement. Courses are offered in three departments: English language arts, history and social sciences, and electives. 

Four Disciplines

California’s 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.”

According to California Education Code, using a course aligned to the model curriculum is one of four ways the graduation requirement can be met. Another way is using an existing ethnic studies course.

A third option is for school districts to adopt an ethnic studies course taught as part of a course that meets admittance requirements at University of California and California State University colleges.

Fourthly, districts can use the approved model curriculum as a guide in developing their own course best suited to each district’s particular demographic needs.

However, a locally developed ethnic studies course must first be presented at the district’s open board of education meeting to allow for a review and public input. A second board meeting must then be scheduled for trustees to vote whether to approve the course.

AB 101 states that the course must:

  • Be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, English learners, and pupils with disabilities.
  • Not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons.
  • Not teach or promote religious doctrine.

Funding Concerns

AB 101 includes what’s known as a savings clause, which states: “These provisions would become operative only upon an appropriation of funds by the legislature.”

To date, that has not happened.

According to the Education Department, the Senate Appropriations Committee estimates the cost of ethnic studies to be approximately $276 million annually, which assumes the hiring of 1,686 teachers at an average salary of $83,000, plus benefits.

Indirect costs of about $37 million and an additional $54.3 million for instructional materials, as well as other expenditures, are anticipated.

To cover some initial costs, a one-time allocation of $50 million has been provided from the state to districts, based on $25.57 per student in grades 9-12.  

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.

The requirement that the mandate for ethnic studies becomes operative only upon the appropriation of funds hints at legislators’ legitimate fiscal concerns.

If it Works

Districts appear to be turning a blind eye to the lack of funding for this graduation requirement and will undoubtedly incur expenses from the general fund to implement the mandate.

And how successful the course will be in meeting its worthy objectives is still being debated.

Yet … why not try?

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 Education Department’s Mike Torres said ethnic studies “affirms diverse students’ identity and brings students together.” It also “increases attendance and test scores and GPAs.”

If ethnic studies does no harm (besides the expenses inflicted on the public), then there’s a chance to create a better and more civil society — assuming it does not, as some fear, increase divisiveness and white guilt.

Newly minted citizens who come out of high school with a better appreciation for both themselves and for others, who respect diversity and the contributions of historically under-represented groups, might surely be worth the price.

If it works.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at