Illinois is set to become the first state to require Asian American history to be taught in public schools, after a bill passed its final legislative hurdle on Friday, amid growing national concern about anti-Asian hatred and discrimination.
After passing the Senate unanimously last week, the final version of the bill was approved by the state House by a vote of 108-10. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the legislation, which would require a unit on the Asian American experience in Illinois and the Midwest beginning in the 2022-23 school year.
She and fellow Democrat state Sen. Ram Villivalam first proposed the bill in 2020, only to have it shelved when the pandemic disrupted the legislative session — and everything else. Villivalam, like many other supporters of the bill, stated that the legislation was personal to him.
As the public health crisis worsened, a wave of bigoted attacks on Asian communities erupted, galvanizing legislators, actors, and activists alike. And the two Illinois legislators resurrected their legislation.
The vote in Illinois comes on the heels of President Joe Biden signing a new anti-Asian crimes law that makes it easier to report attacks online and in multiple languages, as well as authorizing a new Justice Department position. Illinois is also considering separate legislation to require schools in the state to diversify history lessons, similar to how California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. have all recently considered some form of ethnic studies, according to Kwoh. In addition, groups in Georgia, New Jersey, and Washington state are looking into it.
According to Gong-Gershowitz, the spotlight quickly shifted to Illinois.
Illinois was successful in part because the legislation was kept narrow. Other states, including California, have spent years attempting to pass ethnic studies legislation that would mandate teaching history with a broader focus on communities of color in the United States. Last year, a bill was passed by both houses of the California legislature. However, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it after Jewish groups expressed concerns that antisemitism was being minimized and that the draft curriculum was too closely aligned with Palestinians.
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) praised the Illinois bill but expressed concern about the turmoil surrounding similar legislation elsewhere. Democrat state Rep. Fue Lee of Minnesota has also been working on an ethnic studies education bill. Lee’s ethnic studies course would not be required for high school graduation, but it could fulfill a social studies requirement. He claimed that Republicans in his state are opposed to “mandates,” forcing him to rework the legislation. While the bill has bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled House, he admitted in an interview that “we’re not getting support in the Senate,” where Republicans rule.
In Illinois, which was one of the first states in the country to require Holocaust education, the legislation passed easily through the General Assembly and received widespread community support. “We know from Holocaust education that students who are educated and understand the histories of others are more empathetic, more inclusive, and ultimately more sympathetic and willing to engage with people who are different than them,” said David Goldenberg, regional director of the Midwest Anti-Defamation League, which reports an increase in the number of Asian Americans becoming victims of online discrimination.
The passage of the TEAACH Act, according to Illinois state Rep. Theresa Mah, is also responsible for the presence of five Asian Americans in the General Assembly.
The Kwohs’ course materials, which document the Asian American experience, are already being considered for use in some school districts across the country. He had 500 educators sign up for a course on how to teach the curriculum within a week of announcing it, including some from Illinois.
So far, the Kwohs have offered 51 lesson plans to teachers on topics such as racism, civil rights, identity, citizenship, and immigration. After researching the lynchings of Asian Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the California activist became an expert on teaching Asian American history classes. He went on to write a book about AAPI civil right issues and worked with producers of the “Asian Americans” PBS documentary that aired last year.