Research can Impact Policy: Ethnic Studies in California

In September, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed into law a bill — AB 2016 — authorizing the development of high school ethnic studies curriculum. The success of passage of AB 2016 illustrates how research can impact policy, particularly when it is connected with organizing on the ground, and with policy-makers who bring their own commitment. Here’s the story as I experienced it.

In fall of 2010, as battle was being waged on Mexican American Studies in Tucson, Arizona, I was contacted by someone I did not know at the National Education Association to find out if I would be able to review the research on the impact of ethnic studies on students. I gathered that Tucson’s Mexican American studies teachers (some of whom I was in contact with) had asked the NEA for support, and being unfamiliar with what the research says, the NEA requested a review. I was contacted and agreed to do the review.

As it turns out, Jose Lara, at the time a social studies teacher in southern California and subsequently the organizer of California’s Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, had pressed the NEA to conduct a study on the impact of ethnic studies on students. When that proved too expensive, the NEA Board agreed to fund a review of the existing research. It wasn’t until 2015 that I met Jose and learned of this history.

My review, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies, was published in 2011 as a booklet and downloadable PDF. I expected the NEA to publicize and use it to support ethnic studies, but aside from using it as the basis for an article in NEA Today, little happened. For a while.

Meanwhile, in El Rancho Unified School District in southern California, Lara ran for the school board and won. There, he put together the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition and honed his skills in political organizing. Under his leadership, the El Rancho Unified School District Board adopted the first district-wide ethnic studies requirement in California. Ethnic Studies Now began working with Los Angeles Unified School District, then several others, to adopt a similar requirement. I was often called on to write to school board members regarding the research, and/or to write op-eds in local newspapers.

While all of this was happening, Assemblyman Luis Alejo was, on his own, attempting to gain passage of a bill making ethnic studies a state-wide requirement. He was prompted by his own experience of personal transformation while double-majoring in Chicano Studies and Political Science at the University of California-Berkeley. He had been at it in trying to get a bill passed since 2001. Initially he wasn’t aware of how strongly the research backs up his experience, and didn’t yet have the active ground support of Ethnic Studies Now. When I learned of his 2015 bill, I emailed his office, sending a link to my report and offering to help support his bill, but didn’t hear back.

By November, 2015, however three complementary pieces — ground organizing, research, and committed policy-maker — luis-alejo-me-jose-lara-teresa-montan%cc%83ohad come together. At an ethnic studies conference at California State University Northridge, I met Jose face to face (we had been communicating quite a bit by then), and Luis Alejo (who by then was becoming aware of the research). In the picture to the right, you can see me with Luis Alejo (left), Jose Lara (right), and scholar-activist Teresa Montaño

Alejo’s first (somewhat watered-down) bill made it through the legislature, but Governor Brown vetoed it. Not one to give up by a long shot, Alejo introduced a revised version in 2016. In the text of that version, he cited the NEA research review I had written:

(c) There is a growing body of academic research that shows the importance of culturally meaningful and relevant curriculum.
(d) Based on the National Education Association (NEA) publication, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies, the inclusion of ethnic studies in a curriculum has a positive impact on pupils of color.

Also by then, because of Ethnic Studies Now’s active ground work and use of the research, eleven additional school districts had adopted ethnic studies graduation requirements. This time, Governor Brown signed the bill into law.

Researchers sometimes wonder whether research can impact policy. Certainly a good deal of education policy flies in the face of what research says. However, to me this story about ethnic studies in California illustrates that research can impact policy when linked with two additional factors: savvy organizing of people on the ground, and one or more policy makers who have a clear understanding of why a policy position makes sense and the commitment to work for it.

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