Illinois mandates Asian American history in public schools with law experts say is first of its kind

CHICAGO – Public schools in Illinois will be required to teach a unit of Asian American history under a new law education experts say is the first of its kind nationwide.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act, which mandates “a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian American history, including the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest, as well as the contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward.”

“No state has ever done this,” said Sohyun An, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “It is a watershed moment in history in terms of teaching Asian American history in K-12 schools.”

The units are required by the start of the 2022-2023 school year and must cover the wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans and the contributions of Japanese-American infantries during World War II, the legal challenges by Japanese Americans to Executive Order 9066, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Illinois following incarceration, and the United States’ formal apology and redress in 1988.

Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, who co-sponsored the bill, said it “helps create a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of American history for all students in Illinois and helps fight anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.”

“For the 100,000 Asian American K-12 students in Illinois, it ensures they see themselves accurately represented,” she said in a statement earlier this year. “Asian American history is American history.”

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Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview, celebrates the passage of House Bill 367 on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives in Springfield, Ill., on May 31, 2021.

Stewart Kwoh, co-founder of the Asian American Education Project, called the bill a “pace-setting legislative measure.” About ten states are considering something similar, he said.

“There’s a national movement to pass some kind of ethnic studies. There’s a struggle in terms of how the ethnic studies will be presented,” Kwoh said. “The schools are being forced to catch up to the interest.”

Some states are considering mandating “traditional ethnic studies programs,” such as a semester-long course on Asian American and Pacific Islander history, Kwoh said. Others are focused on integrating Asian American history into existing American history courses or offering shorter survey courses on various groups.

Oregon, for example, mandates an ethnic studies component in all grades, which incorporates Asian American and Pacific Islander content, according to Ting-Yi Oei, director of the Asian American Education Project. In California, an ethnic studies model curriculum was approved by the Board of Education in March, but no implementation plan for the state as a whole exists – it’s to be determined by local educational authorities, Oei said.

Lawmakers and activists have long been calling for public education dedicated to the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but the push gained increased attention amid the rise in hate crimes committed against those communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The group Stop AAPI Hate collected reports of more than 6,600 hate incidents – which include both hate crimes and incidents of violence or discrimination – between March 2020 and March 2021. That month, a gunman opened fire on Atlanta-area spas, killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent. 

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In the first quarter of 2021, there was a more than 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports to police in 16 major cities and jurisdictions compared with last year, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

In the spring of 2020, the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago responded to the rise in anti-Asian violence by launching a campaign to include Asian American history in schools, according to Grace Pai, the group’s director of organizing.

“We’ve seen examples in the Chicago area of people harassed or attacked because of their perceived identities, and I think everybody feels the need of something like this to address the root of the violence,” Pai said.

Meanwhile, Kwoh’s nonprofit, the Asian American Education Project, spun out of the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice last year. The project offers more than 50 lesson plans for teachers and has started started hosting free teacher trainings, too.

“Think about what we learned in school about the contributions of Asian Americans to American history. Just a paragraph,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., told USA TODAY earlier this year. “I think we can make the most of this moment to expand the curriculum we’re teaching our kids.”

The Illinois bill comes after President Joe Biden in May signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which aims to speed up the review of pandemic-related hate crimes and provide grants to states to improve hate crime reporting. Meng authored the legislation.

Follow Breaking News Reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck.

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