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K-12 EDUCATION | ASIAN AMERICANS

Bipartisan Asian American history curriculum bill stalls in Legislature

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Kabby Hong

English teacher Kabby Hong in his classroom at Verona Area High School. Hong, supervisor of the high school's Asian Student Organization, is championing a bill with bipartisan support that has been stalled in the Legislature since June. 

In April 2020, about a month into the pandemic, Kabby Hong met online with the Asian student organization he supervises at Verona Area High School to see how his students were doing amid COVID-19 and a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes.

“One of my female Asian American students told me she was at a store and this grown man came up to her and yelled at her to go back to where she came from,” Hong said. “She was really shaken up by it.”

He consoled his 15-year-old student, who was born in the U.S., but then he began to think about his student’s encounter and wondered whether the man had learned about the history and contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in his own schooling.

“He probably didn’t,” Hong said. “He probably had a school system and schooling where we were basically invisible.”

A number of states, including Illinois and New Jersey, have recently passed legislation to ensure Asian American and Pacific Islander history is taught in K-12 schools, while other state legislatures, including California, New York, Florida, Connecticut and Ohio, have recently introduced similar initiatives.

Wisconsin lawmakers also have introduced legislation with bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly that would amend an existing law to include teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander history in K-12 schools, but the bills have sat dormant since May and June.

“I just can’t seem to break through, to be able to get a hearing for that,” said bill author Rep. Patrick Snyder, R-Schofield.

“I kind of beat my head against the wall a little bit,” he said, “But I just think it’s important that the school districts look at what the Hmong have done for us.”

One barrier to the passage of the bills — AB 381 and SB 379 — is a legislative committee chair saying he doesn’t want to increase the number of mandated courses. But that committee has approved bills that would mandate other courses, including financial literacy and cursive handwriting, as well as divisive bills that would require the creation of firearms education and law enforcement interaction classes.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers supports the Asian American history legislation, according to spokesperson Britt Cudaback. If it doesn’t pass, it would be for the second legislative session in a row.

Required classes

An eight-month wait for a legislative education committee to approve a bipartisan bill, much less give it a public hearing, isn’t standard.

Assembly Education Committee chair Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond Du Lac, said he typically doesn’t like passing a bill mandating a course unless that bill also removes a different instructional mandate.

He added that he’s less disposed to hearing a bill when the bill author isn’t advocating its passage.

But Thiesfeldt has allowed hearings for bills requiring the creation and teaching of other courses, and Snyder said he spoke with Thiesfeldt about the bill recently and asked him to give it a hearing.

Patrick Snyder

Snyder

In early January, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill, AB 843, that would require the creation of a firearms safety course. The Assembly Education Committee gave it a hearing two days later and approved it several days after that.

For a bill that would require the creation of a curriculum on interacting with law enforcement officers, AB 830, the process from introduction to approval took just under two weeks.

It took about three weeks for the committee to approve a bill requiring a financial literacy course, AB 899, and three months for the Senate Education Committee to approve a bill requiring instruction in cursive handwriting, SB 431.

Unlike the Asian American history bill, the law enforcement interaction and firearms safety courses include provisions allowing school boards to opt out of teaching the class, meaning they may not be considered “mandated” courses.

Asked why the committee was approving other bills including instructional mandates, Thiesfeldt said, “It’s not a hard and fast rule. There are certain things, you kind of have to weigh the impact of it, I guess is the way I would look at it.”

Thiesfeldt said it’s hard to mandate small courses or lessons.

“This is just another one of those little things, and I’ve taught in schools for over 20 years of my life, (and) you have to keep track of all of these little things, and it’s burdensome,” he said.

Snyder raised another possible explanation for the bill stalling.

“When I talk to some of the senators about this bill, they’re concerned, you know, that there’s already bills out for African Americans, Native Americans, and, they’re just thinking ‘If they add this, what group will come next?’” Snyder said.

The Asian American curriculum bill isn’t the only one stalled in the committee, but it’s among only a couple of bills with Republican authors seeing no progress in it.

“It’s, I think, unconscionable that the state with the third-largest Hmong population — with all of the contributions Hmong communities have provided, in terms of culture and the economy of this state — excludes them from learning more about their history to better understand and build safer communities,” said Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, the state’s first Asian American legislator. “I’m baffled.”

Francesca Hong

Francesca Hong

Snyder and Francesca Hong (who is not related to the Verona teacher) speculated that her involvement in the legislation — she has created controversy with her social media rhetoric — may complicate its passage.

“She has come out rather strong on other issues, attacking some Republicans in groups with her Twitter,” Snyder said. “And I think that is some of the heartburn going into this as well.”

Hong added that she offered to remove her name from the bill if it would help it pass.

Thiesfeldt said he did not know Hong well and did not say she was a reason it was stalled.

“It’s frustrating that something that is bipartisan and that is clearly supported by the Wisconsin School Board Association hasn’t been given the fair process and light that it deserves,” Kabby Hong said.

Bill support

Efforts to pass the bill come after a significant increase nationwide in hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans in the past two years.

Kabby Hong — a state representative in the 2022 National Teacher of the Year Program — said Asians are invisible in most school curricula. He said that invisibility can lead to the violence community members have seen.

He said the stalled bill would simply amend existing legislation, 1989’s Wisconsin Act 31, which requires each school board to provide an instructional program designed to give pupils an understanding of human relations, particularly with regard to American Indians, Black Americans and Hispanics — to include Hmong Americans, and Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans.

School Spotlight

Lake View Elementary students perform a traditional dance during a Hmong New Year celebration in November. The Madison Hmong community usually celebrates the Hmong New Year at the Alliant Energy Center but due to the COVID-19 pandemic it was canceled for a second time last year.

“If you look at the bill, it’s like eight words. It’s literally adding eight or nine words to the current state statute,” Kabby Hong said. “Currently, you do not have to have Asian Americans represented in school curriculum — for whatever reason we were left out. The bill basically rectifies what is a clear oversight.”

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards adopted a resolution at its annual convention that encourages public schools to develop an educational curriculum and professional training to teach the history, culture and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the economic, cultural and social development of the state and country, said Dan Rossmiller, the association’s director of government relations.

The resolution also requests the Legislature provide sufficient funding to develop an appropriate model curriculum for students and training package for teachers.

Other legislation

Kabby Hong

Kabby Hong

In April, Evers signed a bipartisan bill roughly two months after its introduction that would require Wisconsin middle and high school social studies classes to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides which, he said, would bring an increased awareness and recognition to the tragedies of the Holocaust as well as the pervasiveness of antisemitism still evident today. In a statement, he said he hoped the change would cultivate a generation that is more compassionate, empathetic and inclusive.

The Holocaust and other genocides were taught in many Wisconsin schools prior to the passage of the bill, and supporters say the new law is an effort to ensure continuity and consistency in instruction. Proponents of the bill, which passed the Legislature unanimously, pointed to a study released by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation in 2020 that found antisemitic incidents increased 55% between 2018 and 2019 and more than tripled since 2015.

Wisconsin Act 31 was enacted after racially charged clashes at boat landings in the northern part of the state, as members of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwa attempted to exercise rights granted to them by a treaty with the U.S. government, Rossmiller said.

“At the time, former Gov. Tommy Thompson and legislative leaders thought educating Wisconsin students regarding these issues might be a way to diffuse the hostilities,” he said, though current law does not require data collection, tracking of compliance with Act 31 requirements, or evaluation of its efficacy.

“If you see people that look like me, that are woven in the fabric of American history, then you feel like we are a part of America, just like anybody else,” Kabby Hong said, of the stalled legislation.

Next session

Last week, Thiesfeldt said there would probably just be one more Assembly Education Committee hearing before the session ends. That hearing has since passed; it did not include the Asian American history bill in its agenda.

That means the proposed measure is all but certain to meet the same fate as last legislative session, when Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, along with Snyder proposed a nearly identical bill that didn’t receive a hearing, though it only focused on Hmong Americans, not other Asian groups.

Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, did not respond to a request for comment.

Snyder said he’s hopeful for the Asian American bill’s passage in the next session. He said he has plans to shine a bigger light on the issue.

“I don’t want this to be a political thing,” he said. “I just think it’s important that the Hmong residents have a voice and a history in the educational system in the years to come.”

Elizabeth Beyer's most memorable stories of 2021

This past year marked my first as an education beat reporter — or any kind of beat reporter, really — and it was an absolute doozy. From school reopening's amid the pandemic to school board scuffles over mitigation measures and curriculum, I can't think of a single dull moment.

At times I felt like pulling my hair out while chasing down open records requests and battling with school district communications staff over access to those records but seeing policy change in real time after those stories broke has been affirming, even if the story I wrote played a very minor role in affecting that change. 

Despite the challenging year, this rookie beat reporter is looking forward to many more. 

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