In October 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101, which adds the completion of a one-semester course in ethnic studies as a public high school graduation requirement starting with the class of 2030.

Several months earlier, in March 2021, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the first model ethnic studies curriculum for California’s high schools. Focusing primarily on the often-underrepresented contributions and struggles of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans, the model curriculum is not mandatory for any school or district. Instead, it was created to offer local districts ideas and examples to consider if they choose to develop their own ethnic studies coursework.

What is ethnic studies?

Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and Indigeneity, with an emphasis on the experiences of people of color in the United States. Courses outline the contributions made by people of color in government, politics, arts, medicine, economics and other sectors.

Proponents of ethnic studies believe that by affirming the identities, struggles and contributions of all groups, students can expand their perspectives and better see themselves — and their peers — as part of the story of the United States.

Critics see ethnic studies as harmful. They say it will further divide the country along racial lines by categorizing some Americans as oppressors and others as oppressed. Many mistakenly believe ethnic studies is the same thing as critical race theory, which up until recently was an obscure academic term describing how race intersects with U.S. laws and institutions.

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring the State Board of Education to adopt a model curriculum for ethnic studies. The law said the state’s educational standards should be guided by core values of equity, inclusivity and universally high expectations. It also cited research showing the importance of culturally relevant curriculum.

The state board approved California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in March 2021 after four years, four drafts and more than 100,000 public comments. The 900-page document is “aimed at empowering students by illuminating the often-untold struggles and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/a/x Americans, and Asian Americans in California,” according to the California Department of Education.

The state’s model curriculum is intended to provide guidance to school districts and county offices of education that choose to offer ethnic studies courses. As such, it’s not mandatory, and it does not require that specific concepts like critical race be taught or included.

Ethnic studies in Orange County

Under the leadership of locally elected school boards and superintendents, several Orange County school districts have developed their own ethnic studies courses or are considering proposals. In most districts where ethnic studies courses have been developed, they are elective courses, meaning they are not yet required.

That said, recent legislation known as Assembly Bill 101 added the completion of a one-semester course in ethnic studies as a public high school graduation by 2029-30. Districts will be required to develop and offer at least one ethnic studies course by 2025-26.

Ethnic studies at your school or district

If you have questions about the ethic studies coursework offered or under consideration at your school, contact your school’s principal or district leadership. Check the school or district’s website for email addresses and phone numbers.