Ethnic studies will be taught in high schools across Orange County in the next four years, along with the rest of high schools throughout the state.
Earlier this month, California became the first state to require high school students to take a semester-long ethnic studies course after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation mandating the course as a requirement beginning with the graduating class of 2029-30.
“America is shaped by our shared history, much of it painful and etched with woeful injustice. Students deserve to see themselves in their studies, and they must understand our nation’s full history if we expect them to one day build a more just society,” wrote Newsom in his bill signing statement.
The law requires schools to offer at least one semester-long ethnic studies course starting in the 2025-26 school year.
These courses — designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States — will also become a graduation requirement for students in the years to come.
Newsom’s decision to require ethnic studies comes amid a reckoning and intense debates in school districts throughout OC on how U.S. and world history is being taught and what parts of it are being left out in classrooms nationwide.
Some students have been pushing for these classes, wanting people of color reflected in the curriculum they are taught and believing the course will help quell racism and hate.
Studies have also shown benefits of the course.
A study by Stanford Graduate School of Education shows such courses increase attendance and the grade point average of students who were at risk of dropping out.
Critics are concerned these courses will sow divisiveness and have been organizing push back at local school board meetings — not just in OC, but across the country.
Some local parents and residents have said ethnic studies is a guise for what they’re calling critical race theory, which they say teaches kids that all white people are racist while victimizing people of color.
They argue that the theory is anti-American, divisive and will subject students to political indoctrination and marxist ideology. The theory itself has been banned in some states.
But academics say critical race theory examines how laws and structures in the U.S. have been historically leveraged against people of color. Local district officials and academics say the theory is taught at the college level and not in high school ethnic studies courses.
Before Newsom signed the ethnic studies bill, some OC school districts created the class as an elective — a couple like the Santa Ana Unified School District and Anaheim Union High School District mandated the course as a graduation requirement to take effect in a couple of years.
Some districts have faced a heated and contentious debate with educators, parents and students showing up to meetings and defending the classes, while other community members have gone to adamantly oppose the courses.
The Tustin Unified School District has faced backlash for their implementation of an elective ethnic studies course this year.
Now there is an effort to recall three of the trustees — Lynn Davis, Allyson Damikolas and Jonathan Stone — with concern that critical race theory is being taught through the ethnic studies course.
The Republican Party of Orange County unanimously passed a resolution in support of the recall in late September.
“This kind of egregious activity is happening all over Orange County and we must put an end to it before it destroys the very fabric of our communities,” reads an email from Fred Whitaker, Chairman of the OC GOP, calling for people to support the recall.
Placentia-Yorba Linda District Discusses Banning CRT
Days after Newsom signed the ethnic studies bill, the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District Board of Trustees debated potentially banning teaching critical race theory.
A resolution banning the teaching of the theory and defining what the district calls critical race theory is expected to be brought before the board at their meeting in November.
The California School Boards Association says the theory emphasizes race as a social construct, as well as acknowledges that racism is embedded in American systems, institutions and laws.
Some of the parents who spoke at last Tuesday’s Placentia-Yorba Linda school board meeting called for the district to ban the theory, but much of the public comment portion — which went on for almost two hours — was dominated by people who spoke against vaccine mandates.
Trustees Shawn Youngblood, Leandra Blades and Marilyn Anderson supported looking into a ban on teaching the theory, despite their colleague Trustee Karin Freeman arguing the theory was not being taught at the district.
Youngblood called critical race theory “a candy coated poison” at the meeting, while Blades said the theory places a wedge between students.
Both have pushed back on an ethnic studies elective course in the district earlier this year.
“What is most disturbing about [critical race theory] is the notion that America is built on racism and specifically targets white people as oppressors,” Blades said. “We do not want to be responsible for implementing divisive curriculum, we can and will empower all students.”
Other local parents and educators argue the trustees are mischaracterizing the theory.
Proponents say critical race theory is being used as a bogeyman of sorts to scare people away from ethnic studies by plaguing the debate on the course with misinformation.
Parents at Tuesday’s board meeting spoke up in support of ethnic studies and said the theory has nothing to do with the course.
“We need ethnic studies. It is not [critical race theory]. It is not any of that crap. Your kids aren’t skipping from K through 12 and going to a specialized legal school and all of a sudden graduating with a juris doctorate. [Ethnic studies] is something totally different,” said Miguel Lopez, a parent in the district.
Some of the parents in the district in support of ethnic studies don’t feel safe speaking out in board meetings for fear of being verbally attacked by parents who don’t share the same viewpoints.
“It’s really scary and intimidating, sitting in a room with those people and being so outnumbered, especially when they are expressing so much anger and hate,” said Sonia Dhaliwal, a parent in the district, in a Thursday phone interview.
A couple have found other ways to let their feelings known.
Parents, Students & Teachers Criticize Placentia-Yorba Linda School Board
Hours before the district held their meeting last Tuesday, parents and a student in the district held a press conference at Parque de los Niños in Placentia, where speakers called on the board to stop trying to ban conversations about race and racism in the classroom.
They also called for professional training for mental health staff in the district around racism and mental health.
At the conference, Gabe Estrada — a student in the district — spoke about a recent incident where Yorba Linda High School students created a poster that read “Ur Dad is My Gardener,” allegedly directed at Latino students at Esperanza High School before a football game.
“If this is something that becomes part of our culture, and our society to slander others because of their race and ethnicity, then we’re going to have a lot of problems in the future,” he said.
“If they would have started the ethnic studies courses, the students would learn respect for each other, they’d start to understand each other better so I’m looking to my district to be able to do the right thing,” Estrada continued.
Rosalind Turner, a parent in the district, said ethnic studies helps students understand inequality and oppression, while being inclusive to students of color.
“Only through the enlightenment of ethnic studies, will students of color be able to learn to laugh, eat well and grow strong,” Turner said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.