Education Matters: Preparing for ethnic studies


Assembly Bill 101, signed into law by Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021, mandates the completion of a one-semester course in ethnic studies as a public high school graduation requirement beginning with the 2025-2026 school year for students graduating in 2029-2030.

Marsha Sutton
(File photo)

A recent Webinar hosted by California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond focused on helping school districts develop an ethnic studies class and the reasons why ethnic studies is important.

The purpose of the Webinar, he said, was to help school districts “as you design your own ethnic studies programs.”

The course may be based on the ethnic studies model curriculum (ESMC) that was adopted by the California Department of Education (CDE) in 2021, or the ESMC can be used as a guide in developing a new course.

School districts are permitted to develop their own ethnic studies course that is tailored to a district’s particular demographic needs, but the proposed course must be reviewed first in public at an open board of education meeting to allow constituents the opportunity to review the syllabus and make comments.

After that, the local educational agency’s board of education must hold a second open meeting to approve the course.

Any locally developed course cannot promote or reflect bias against any group or promote any particular religious doctrine. It also must be appropriate for students from all backgrounds, religions, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientation, and physical disabilities.

An existing ethnic studies course that meets established criteria or a course that’s been approved by the University of California and California State University systems are also acceptable.

CDE Webinar speakers addressed the importance of using the 2021 state-approved ESMC and not earlier versions, which were rejected due to concerns about bias and discrimination in the content.

The message was important because there are those promoting the original version, the so-called “liberated” ESMC, which the state has labeled unacceptable. The CDE urges districts to proceed with caution and use only the 2021 CDE-approved ESMC.

Local high school districts

San Dieguito Union High School District Superintendent Anne Staffieri said they are in the early stages of developing curriculum for ethnic studies, with the goal of offering a pilot program in the fall of 2024.

“First we have to decide what type of course model we want to pursue and how is that best going to meet our needs,” she said.

SDUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Bryan Marcus said, “We’re working backwards from our timeline, knowing that this is a graduation requirement for students commencing in 2029-2030.”

Marcus said the district is working with teachers from varied curricular areas, including English and social sciences, and with teachers on special assignment, as well as other educational partners, including the San Diego County Office of Education and UC, CSU and community college colleagues.

“We are analyzing the model curriculum and looking at how does that best fit in with San Dieguito,” he said. “We have to make sure it’s in alignment with the state and also [meets] CSU and UC requirements.”

After selecting the course model that’s most appropriate, given the collective input, Marcus said the goal is to end the 2023-2024 school year with a fully developed curriculum and be ready to implement a pilot of the course in the fall of 2024.

Marcus credited Staffieri, who just began her position at SDUHSD in July, with bringing unity to the district.

“We will be moving all together, whereas in the past it’s been a little more bifurcated,” he said. “We will all be moving together in sync. That’s a really important quality that Anne brings to the table.”

About those promoting adoption of the earlier ESMC version that was rejected by the state, Staffieri said the district “will follow the content laid out by the California Department of Education model curriculum, the one that was adopted in March 2021.”

At Carlsbad Unified School District, CUSD Superintendent Ben Churchill said earlier this year that the intent of ethnic studies “is to provide students the opportunity to learn about the histories, cultures, struggles, and contributions to American society of historically marginalized peoples, which have often been untold in U.S. history courses.”

Referring to an ethnic studies film class approved by the school board last March, he said in an email, “While we expect that the film studies course can be used to meet the AB 101 requirement, we intend to develop another course as well.”

He said the district plans to offer the film studies course next spring and then determine what worked well and what didn’t.

“We’ll then put together a plan and timeline for developing another course that will be open to all students and will be used to satisfy the AB 101 requirements,” Churchill said. “I don’t expect that work to begin until the 2024-2025 school year.”

Funding remains an unknown

The text of AB 101 includes a clause stating that the bill is inoperative if not fully funded. CDE estimates the amount of full funding from the state for the ethnic studies course mandate to be about $276 million annually, mostly due to the need to hire new teachers.

To date, only $50 million in one-time funds have been distributed to California high school districts for ethnic studies development.

From information received earlier this year, SDUHSD and CUSD received $227,950 and $99,939, respectively, as their share of the $50 million one-time apportionment from the state, based on $25.57 per student in grades 9-12.

“It’s difficult to receive clarity on where the funding piece is currently,” Staffieri said. “So we are moving forward to make sure that we are prepared … and can meet the requirements for the students graduating in the 2029-2030 school year.”

There was no mention of funding in Thurmond’s Webinar which mostly focused on the value of ethnic studies for all students.

“We’re all part of one human family,” Thurmond said. “We know that inclusive education works” and that “students from all backgrounds do well” when learning about the contributions of under-represented groups and cultures.

Despite the funding uncertainty, districts are proceeding with the ethnic studies requirement and hoping more funding becomes available. But as a wise person once said, hope is not a plan.

School districts are accustomed to unfunded mandates, and this may be another.

Still, a course in ethnic studies is a noble goal and may be worth the cost if it really leads students from all backgrounds to greater respect, deeper understanding and meaningful appreciation of others.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at

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