California on Friday became the first state to require an ethnic studies credit for high school graduation, a move Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom approved after surviving a recall vote last month.
The new law, which Mr. Newsom signed Friday and which supporters say will help students from groups battling racism or marginalization, sailed through the legislature for a second time. A nearly identical bill passed the legislature last year, but Mr. Newsom vetoed it.
The governor’s office said the new requirement “will help expand educational opportunities in schools, teach students about the diverse communities that comprise California, and boost academic engagements and attainment for students.”
Shirley Weber, California’s secretary of state and a longtime advocate for ethnic studies, has said the requirement will show California is blazing a path as other states “are retreating from an accurate discussion of our history.”
The requirement will kick in for seniors graduating in 2030. Local school boards will be required to hold public hearings about the courses they will offer to satisfy the requirement.
The law comes against a tumultuous background in K-12 education nationwide, with school systems and legislatures in dozens of states grappling with the inclusion of critical race theory and a broader debate about the role civics should play in learning.
A teaching guide for California’s ethnic studies curriculum describes critical race theory as one that “acknowledges that racism is embedded within systems and institutions.”
Developed in graduate schools decades ago, critical race theory holds that U.S. laws and institutions are inherently racist and that Whites still oppress Blacks and other people of color. The theory has trickled down to training sessions, teaching material and school activities in many public and private K-12 schools. In the process, it has become a catch-all phrase to describe some diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Williamson Evers, a conservative scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a leading critic of California’s ethnic studies requirement, insists it is laced with notions of “oppressor” and “victim” that will prove a disservice to the state’s students.
“Welcome to ‘critical ethnic studies,’ which boils down to vulgar Marxism, identity politics and victimology,” Mr. Evers wrote last year. “Ideologically blinkered designers of ethnic-studies programs miss out on knowledge and analysis from mainstream social sciences that could enhance what students are taught.”