March 8, 2023
California kids are in trouble.
Less than half meet national standards for literacy, and only one-third meet standards for math. The picture is grimmer for minorities: percentages hover around 30% for African Americans, American Indians and Hispanic/Latino students in literacy, and 20% for math.
Last October, Gov. Gavin Newsom underscored the urgency of getting California students “the resources they need to thrive.” Three weeks later, however, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Legislature’s independent fiscal adviser, pressed Newsom to claw back billions of promised spending because of a looming $24 billion budget deficit.
Faced with students’ abysmal academic performance and the prospect of severe belt-tightening, Newsom and state legislators are now forced to scrutinize their fiscal promises and missteps.
First on their list should be new expensive educational initiatives that do not demonstrate academic benefits, chief among them California’s 2021 ethnic studies high school graduation requirement (AB-101). Its proponents’ bold claims that ethnic studies courses improve academic achievement evaporate when held to scientific scrutiny. A 2022 critique by UCLA and University of Pennsylvania professors of the single quantitative study cited as proof of these claims found that “no conclusion” could be drawn from the data, charging that the study “should not have been published … much less relied upon in the formation of public policy.”
Fortunately, California’s ethnic studies graduation law can be suspended without further legislative action under the bill’s own terms, which state the requirement becomes operative “only upon an appropriation of funds by the Legislature.” As former Assemblymember Luis Alejo, sponsor of several ethnic studies bills, admitted, “[A]ny bill that has that language inserted is, in effect, defunded.”
That fail-safe language was a last-minute amendment, inserted after the addition of a series of “guardrail” amendments intended to ensure that required ethnic studies courses would be “free from bias or bigotry and appropriate for all students.” Together, these amendments reflected legislators’ growing concerns about what the bill’s implementation would mean for the state and its students.
Insertion of the savings clause indicated legislators’ legitimate fiscal concerns. The state Senate Appropriations Committee estimated the bill would cost taxpayers a whopping $276 million annually, prompting the Department of Finance to stamp “Oppose” on it.
The “guardrail” amendments reflected legislators’ concern over growing evidence that a small group of activist-educators were successfully injecting “liberated” ethnic studies — their own highly politicized and divisive take on the subject — into schools across the state.
Two years prior, a controversial curriculum drafted by the group’s members was flatly rejected by Newsom, state education officials, legislators on both sides of the aisle, and Californians, largely because of its divisiveness and overtly anti-Jewish content. Disgruntled about the rejection of their curriculum, these activists embarked on a campaign to lobby individual school districts, which have the final say over curriculum choice, hoping to circumvent what state-level decision-makers had scrapped.
In 2021, group members officially launched their own business, the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition (LESMCC), to monetize their activism by charging tens of thousands of dollars in fees for their professional development and curriculum writing services. Within a few months, the group was speaking at government-sponsored conferences, snagged plum consulting gigs and gained traction with county offices of education.
Not only are state revenues faltering, but as a result of LESMCC’s successful marketing of its “liberated” approach, numerous school districts and county departments of education are adopting the kind of ethnic studies that legislators, the governor and the public explicitly oppose. To make matters worse, the Liberated group has leveraged its members’ positions as faculty members in ethnic studies departments in the UC and CSU to stress the “liberated” approach in the training of ethnic studies teaching candidates, who in turn will bring it to classrooms throughout the state.
Thankfully, AB-101’s eleventh-hour “only upon an appropriation of funds” clause can avert this disaster. If the governor and state lawmakers opt not to fund the exorbitant requirement, school districts will be free to not require it.
This should be very good news for the vast majority of school districts that have yet to adopt an ethnic studies curriculum for their high schools. Instead of fretting over how to implement an academically empty and divisive requirement that will likely do nothing to help failing students, they can turn their attention to those academic programs that can actually help California kids to thrive.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.