California Governor Vetoes Controversial Bill Requiring Ethnic Studies for High School Students

October 1, 2020 Updated: October 1, 2020

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed a bill that would make an ethnic studies course focusing on racial justice activism a high school graduation requirement.

Last month, California’s state legislature passed AB 331, which was shelved last year following a backlash over its proposed model curriculum, on which the ethnic studies course would be based. A new draft model curriculum was put forward in August, leading to the bill’s revival amid nationwide protests and riots.

Newsom said while he agrees with AB 331’s concept, he has to veto the bill because of the controversy around the course’s curriculum.

“I value the role ethnic studies plays in helping students think critically about our history and understand the experience of marginalized communities in our state,” the Democratic governor wrote in his veto message (pdf). “This bill, however, would require ethnic studies to be taught in high school at a time when there is much uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum for ethnic studies.”

Newsom added that he felt the original curriculum was “insufficiently balanced and inclusive, and needed to be substantially amended,” and that the latest curriculum “still needs revision.”

According to the latest version of the ethnic studies model curriculum, the course should teach students about “the interlocking systems of oppression and privilege that impact all people of color.” The revised curriculum still focuses heavily on political activism, as one of its outlines says students are expected to “acquire tools to become positive actors in their communities to address a contemporary issue and present findings in a public forum.”

The curriculum provides a collection of sample lessons, which dedicates a considerable portion to exploring the Black Lives Matter movement. In a sample lesson titled “#BlackLivesMatter and Social Change,” students are expected to “develop an understanding and analyze the effectiveness” of the movement, and be able to identify how African Americans have been “disproportionately impacted by racial profiling and police brutality.”

According to the lesson plan, the teacher will start with a discussion of a local or national incident involving “racial profiling or police brutality” against an African American, and link this incident to the broader Black Lives Matter movement. After completing the reading and discussion, students will identify key incidents and victims, define key terms such as “anti-blackness” and “state sanctioned violence,” and learn about “tactics of resistance used by activists and organizers within the movement.”

As part of the second component of the lesson, students are encouraged to “explore the possible actions of advocacy for social justice and social change” and will be given another week to produce their own social change projects, “whether it be drawing a protest poster or drafting a plan to organize a direct action.”

In August, Newsom signed into law a similar bill, AB 1460, which adds an ethnic studies course to the graduation requirements in the California State University system.