California Assembly Passes ‘Ethnic Studies’ Bill

June 5, 2021 Updated: June 8, 2021

Proposed legislation that would make “ethnic studies” a high school graduation requirement has moved one step closer to becoming law in California.

The California Assembly voted 58–9 in favor of Assembly Bill 101 (AB 101) on May 27, sending it to the state Senate. According to its opponents, the legislation would force students to learn critical race theory, while supporters say the bill would promote a more inclusive curriculum.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) told The Epoch Times that despite widespread support for the bill among state lawmakers—predominantly the Democratic majority—he remains committed to drawing attention to the curriculum and the risks associated with it.

“I hope that at the end of the day my arguments—and the arguments of many, many, many thousands of people—will prevail, and that we’ll do the right thing and commit ourselves not to this curriculum, but to fundamental education reform in California that will provide students with a real educational opportunity,” Kiley said.

The bill would require all high schools to offer ethnic studies courses beginning in the 2025–26 academic year and would require all students in public schools—including those enrolled in charter schools—to complete at least one full semester of coursework in ethnic studies to graduate, beginning in the 2029–30 school year.

AB 101 would further require that instructions and materials for the course “be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English learners,” and “not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis of any category protected” under existing law, according to the Assembly Education Committee analysis.

While AB 101 is known as the “ethnic studies” bill, Kiley said components of the curriculum that would be required in California public schools are based on critical race theory.

“I don’t think anyone would dispute that,” he said. “The sort of ideological program that this curriculum embodies is quite similar to what’s being promoted elsewhere, although this is sort of unique in California, and it’s being made into a graduation requirement.”

“You’re not supposed to use the process of compulsory education to inculcate a particular political viewpoint. You’re supposed to empower students with the tools to make up their own minds on important questions that affect the communities, the country, and everything else.”

Jose Medina (D-Riverside), the author of AB 101, cited the lynching of Emmett Till in Missouri in 1965 and the death of George Floyd in Minnesota when he introduced the bill on the Assembly floor.

“As tens of thousands of young people marched across the United States declaring that black lives matter, calling for justice and police reform, high school students in California … raised their voices, demanding more than just the same Eurocentric curriculum that high schools in California have always taught,” Medina said.

“High school students today, like young Chicano students in 1968 who walked out of their East L.A. high school, want to see themselves reflected in history, novels, poetry, drama that is taught in high school.”

Kiley said when the first draft of the bill’s curriculum was released, it was universally condemned by the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, whose members “wrote a letter saying that it echoes the propaganda of the Nazi regime.”

“Now, you would think our response would be to immediately scrap the whole thing and bring accountability to whoever was responsible for this; after all, people have lost their jobs, their careers, for things far less serious than trying to teach Nazi propaganda to high school students,” said Kiley.

“But that’s not what happened. Instead, we said, ‘OK, we’ll make a few tweaks, we’ll make a few edits, we’ll tone down the Nazi propaganda, and then we’ll impose this on every high school student in California.’”

Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills), who chairs the Jewish Caucus, said the 18-member caucus has since supported a revised version of the model curriculum.

“I want to note that every member of our caucus supported this bill last year,” Gabriel said.

“There was a model curriculum, an initial draft which came out, that our caucus objected to. There was some very deeply bigoted material in that information, song lyrics about how Jews control and manipulate the media—things that our community found absolutely untenable.”

But he said the caucus “came to the table” and “engaged with stakeholders.” Following a “robust process” approved by the state board of education, “a model curriculum … was virtually unanimously adopted.”

“Now, there are voices within our community, some that are still concerned about ethnic studies that still have objections to it. But the vast majority of Jewish community organizations that have large membership that speak for our community are proud of what’s in the model curriculum,” Gabriel said.

But Kiley said Jewish American groups, among others, continue to oppose the fourth draft of the ethnic studies curriculum. He said one such group described the bill as “tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of every Jewish student” at a time when “anti-Jewish sentiment, hostility, and violence has reached truly alarming levels.”

“Anti-Semitism is just one manifestation of what is so fundamentally wrong with his proposed curriculum,” Kiley said.

“And it’s not just the exclusion of groups, the denigration of groups. It’s that it seeks to impose a particular worldview on students, rather than giving the analytical and critical thinking tools to construct their identity for themselves. And I particularly object to the notion that this curriculum is somehow in service of equity.”

Kiley, a former teacher, said the quality of education in California is so deplorable that students won a $50 million lawsuit against the state for violating their civil rights “based upon them not being taught how to read.”

“I can speak to this issue firsthand. I taught high school in Los Angeles … and when my 10th graders got to my classroom, the average reading level was fifth grade,” he said.

“When I came to the Legislature, my biggest priority was to fight for true educational equity. Yet every attempt I’ve made to expand educational equity and opportunity has been snuffed out by the most powerful special interests of this capital, whose business model is to keep kids trapped in failing schools.”

Medina cited the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and mentioned the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps during World War II as examples of why California students should learn more about ethnic minority groups.

“It’s time we listened to the voices of our students and to the professors calling for ethnic studies,” Medina said. “Remember, it is never too late to do the right thing.”

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said high school students should be taught more about their own history.

“You cannot construct your identity if you don’t know your history,” she said.

The bill was read for the first time in the California Senate on May 28, before being sent to the Rules Committee for assignment.