Ethnic Studies Mandated

California recently took the contested step of passing a bill that will require the completion of an ethnic studies course in high school for graduation. Taking full effect beginning in the 2029-2030 school year, it marks what the author of the bill, Democratic Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), hopes will make a “curriculum that is more equitable and more reflective of social justice.”

At Granite Bay High, Ethnic Studies has already been taught since the 2020-2021 school year, in response to a separate Assembly Bill passed by the legislature in September 2020. After Governor Gavin Newsom’s veto of that bill,  the new ethnic studies mandate, Assembly Bill 101, was passed and signed by Gov. Newsom.

This bill, nine pages long, had a turbulent history from proposal to passage, fraught with vocal opposition.

“The state of California just passed (Assembly Bill 101) that teaching critical race theory in the school will be a requirement for anyone graduating high school. … critical race theory was founded on the Frankfurt School, a …  neo-Marxist (institution),” said Robert Brekke, the head of a Roseville-based organization, Stop Radical Ed, that opposes the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. 

Critical race theory is a law school curriculum, developed in the 1970s and ‘80s not taught in high schools, but in ethnic studies courses or elsewhere.   

Ethnic Studies at GBHS has also faced intense backlash, as the teacher, Jillyan McKinney experienced firsthand when the local organization posted a video  criticizing ethnic studies within the district as well as her teaching practices. The original footage is from a district staff equity meeting featuring teacher voices on equity; Brekke offers his own commentary over the audio.

Initially taken down at the district’s request, it was put back up on Aug. 28th. 

“(The teachers) are misguided and they are dangerous because they have no right to be teaching this stuff to our kids,” Brekke says in the video.

The video is paused on a still of McKinney’s face as he continues. 

“They’re here to say they’re here to save the world by taking your little children, taking your kids and removing what you’ve taught them,” Brekke says in the video. “Did you hear her say ‘fighting against the patriarchy?’ That’s you and your family. Yeah. That’s the goal of Marxism.”

When asked to comment on the video, he said, “What she’s putting out there, it pisses people off, and what I’m putting out there, it pisses people off. It’s called free speech, but except in my case, I’m not being paid to do it. Whereas, she is. … I guarantee you that she knows nothing about slavery, history, or many other things.”

According to Brekke, The reason (for the organization) is that you can easily get canceled in this society we live in these days, for being associated with the wrong people.”

Backlash against the class is by no means isolated to Granite Bay High School. Christopher D’Arienzo, an ethnic studies teacher in Woodcreek High School wrote, “I am

aware of the website ‘Stop Radical Ed’ and the videos … that kind of speech can be

dehumanizing and creates a scapegoat out of teachers, and it is hard to anticipate what

someone might do with information presented in that way.”

Following the video being reposted, McKinney took a leave of absence for five weeks, and said in an interview, “This work is difficult at times, but so necessary and needed.”

McKinney, who has been teaching for 16 years, announced her resignation on Facebook yesterday, to join Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit that offers support for unhoused people, as a racial equity specialist. 

“Long before I began my career as an educator, I witnessed injustice, oppression, and racism against my own family and that has been my catalyst for this work. Unfortunately, this is not new to my family or myself.”

Senior Chloe Adair  took the ethnic studies course with McKinney last year as a junior. 

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, like, we’re blaming white people for this and that they’re making white people sound bad,” Adair said. “But it’s not about that. It’s about informing people what the U.S. did.” 

Covered in the class, among other things, is the post-Reconstruction South, the Native American genocide, and the conflict in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War.   

Avery Seva, a junior who is currently taking the class, also commented on the fierce backlash prompted by the course.

“People have a weird stigma that ethnic studies is going to turn you into a communist, or that they’re going to teach you that this country is horrible, rather than just informing us on the true history and how we can help better the society,” Seva said.

The new law will also require the teaching of an ethnic studies course in every California high school by the 2025-2026 school year.

I foresee our schools being at the forefront of this movement,” McKinney said. “Ethnic studies is interdisciplinary and allows students to see the world through a different lens.”    

“She’s a great teacher,” freshman Julietta Restani said. “She’s definitely had an impact on my life … and it’s going to be a sad day when she leaves.”

D’Arienzo agreed. “Granite Bay and RJUHSD are losing a great teacher. …  I know that she is pursuing other opportunities and that the decision was difficult to make

because of the great students, staff, and community she had at GB.”

Ethnic studies, and indeed the mandate in California as a whole, is intended to give students a more comprehensive understanding of racism and racial equality.

I am hopeful that the community will be open-minded and willing to see this curriculum as a starting point for necessary conversations to move toward a more globally minded world,” McKinney said.