October 27, 2020

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Gov. Newsom vetoes requirement for ethnic studies course in high school

5 min read
Credit: Website of Assemblyman Jose Medina Assemblyman Jose Medina, primary author of a bill requiring...

Credit: Website of Assemblyman Jose Medina

Assemblyman Jose Medina, primary author of a bill requiring completion of an ethnic studies to graduate from high school, speaking on the Assembly floor in 2017.

Gov. Gavin Newsom unexpectedly vetoed a bill Wednesday to mandate a course in ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement, starting in 2029-30. He announced his decision on the final day for acting on bills passed in the legislative the session ending Aug. 31.

In his veto message on Assembly Bill 331, Newsom reiterated his support for ethnic studies, pointing out that he signed a similar bill last month adding an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement for California State University. But he said continuing disagreements over a proposed model ethnic studies curriculum for high school should be resolved before imposing a high school mandate.

“Last year, I expressed that the initial draft of the model curriculum was insufficiently balanced and inclusive and needed to be substantially amended. In my opinion, the latest draft, which is currently out for review, still needs revision,” he wrote.

He said he is directing his staff to work with State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to ensure the curriculum achieves “balance, fairness and is inclusive of all communities.”

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The California Department of Education, under Thurmond’s direction, proposed the latest draft. After further revision and public comment, it will go to the state board, which under a 2016 law must approve the model curriculum by March. School districts in California already offer hundreds of ethnic studies courses as electives. Several districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno, plan to require the course.

In a statement, the bill’s lead author, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, called the veto “a failure to push back against the racial rhetoric and bullying of Donald Trump” and a “disservice” to students who had called for the course requirement. He vowed to introduce the bill for the third time next year and expressed hope that he would convince Newsom to sign it.

Medina said he was “somewhat surprised” by Newsom’s veto, since the governor’s staff hadn’t raised objections to the bill in late August when he negotiated a series of changes, including several suggested by the California Jewish Legislative Caucus. In his veto message, Newsom praised the amendment that would ensure that an ethnic studies curriculum will be free from “bias and discrimination.”

Jewish groups had objected that the original draft curriculum minimized anti-Semitism and sided with the Palestinians over Israel in a proposed lesson plan on Arab Americans. Others said its critique of America was unbalanced, with a perspective that sees only America’s shortcomings on race. The document was written primarily by ethnic studies experts, college professors and high school teachers from California.

Still unresolved is a broader disagreement over which groups ethnic studies should include. Thurmond agrees with legislators and ethnic studies advocates who want the course to concentrate on the four groups that have been the focus of ethnic studies in higher education since its inception in the late 1960s: African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Native Americans and Indigenous people, and Asian Americans.

Other ethnic groups, including Sikhs, Armenians and Jewish Americans, want the course to include more about their heritage and continuing struggles with prejudice. Earlier this month, Thurmond announced a new million-dollar “Education to End Hate” initiative that will include resources and training grants for teachers to teach tolerance for differences in race and religion and a roundtable with political and social justice leaders on how to create tolerant learning environments.

Rabbi Mayer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which will provide materials on confronting anti-Semitism, joined Thurmond at the announcement.

But this initiative doesn’t address the dispute over an ethnic studies curriculum.

Newsom’s message doesn’t say what a compromise would be, but his veto will add pressure to reach it. “In California, we don’t tolerate diversity. We celebrate it. That should be reflected in our high school curriculum,” he wrote. “I look forward to our model curriculum achieving these goals.”

Related

New draft ethnic studies curriculum for California students issued after a year of study

AB 331 would require the completion of a one-semester ethnic studies course starting with the graduating class of 2029-30; districts would have to begin offering a course in the 2025-26 school year.

Medina said another year’s delay in passage of the bill should not affect that timeline.

In a statement Wednesday, the California Teachers Association expressed disappointment with the veto. “In the midst of the largest and most widespread movement for equality and equity our nation has seen since the Civil Rights era, the need for all students to learn about the diverse histories and perspectives of Black, Indigenous and people of color couldn’t be greater,” said CTA President E. Toby Boyd. He called for “an authentic ethnic studies curriculum that can be implemented with veracity and reliability.”

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