Gov. Dan McKee signs bill requiring state public schools to teach Asian American history and culture

As the new school year begins, conversations on teaching racism and the history of minority communities in the U.S. resume. After Illinois became the first state to mandate that Asian American history be part of its public school curriculum, other states followed suit in efforts to combat the increasing anti-Asian hate present in the country. In efforts to dismantle racism and teach children why it’s wrong, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee signed a bill Saturday that will require all public schools in the state to teach Asian American history and culture, WPRI reported.

The law, which will go into effect in the 2023-24 school year, applies to all public elementary and secondary schools in the Ocean State and ensures that schools have at least one unit of teaching on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander History and culture included in their curriculums.

McKee signed the bill during the opening ceremonies of both the Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival in Pawtucket.

“Rhode Island’s strength is in its diversity, and this important legislation will do so much to highlight the rich history and heritage of the Asian American community and the positive impact they’ve had on our state and country,” the governor said according to a press release. “I thank the bill sponsors and advocates who made sure that this bill passed this past session, and it is an honor to sign it at the annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival, one of our state’s signature celebrations of Asian culture.”

In addition to AAPI community leaders, McKee was joined today at the signing by Sen. Sandra Cano and Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.

“According to the 2020 Census, Rhode Island’s Asian American community has grown 28 percent over the last decade and in order to ensure that our society respects the dignity of all races and peoples, it is important that our children learn about the history and contributions made by the various different cultures within our state,” said Cano, who sponsored the bill. “This is true of our state’s growing Asian American population and this bill will teach our students about the rich culture and history of their Asian American friends and neighbors.”

Fenton-Fung noted the impact that the bill and teaching children Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history would have.

“When talking to Asian American students about this bill, they told me they had never been assigned material to read by an Asian American author and that they had never learned about their history or culture in school. Combined with the rising bias against Asian Americans, there is a clear need to break this cycle of cultural misunderstandings and this legislation is a good first step in that direction, acknowledging and celebrating the instrumental role that Asian Americans have had in our state, country and culture,” said Fenton-Fung, who also sponsored the bill.

Advocates also chimed in, including Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.

“Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have been a vital part of Rhode Island’s history dating back to the 1800s and continuing through today, and our state is stronger for it,” Matos said. “I am proud that every Rhode Island school will now teach our students about the many contributions of the AAPI community to our state and our nation. Let’s keep working to ensure that every Rhode Island student can learn about each vibrant culture that makes our state unique.”

While bills requiring the history of Asian Americans and their contributions to the country to be taught in schools are new, similar bills have been passed for other cultures nationwide. According to CNN, California adopted a model for ethnic studies for K-12 students in March 2021. That bill included instruction on teaching Asian American history; however, it made the curriculum voluntary for schools and served as a guide.

The step towards teaching AAPI history in schools follows a rise in hate crimes against the community nationwide. Data released by the FBI found that hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent in the U.S. rose by 70% last year when compared to the number of such incidents in 2019. The report also found that more than 10,000 people reported hate crimes to law enforcement, the highest tally of reported hate crimes since 2008. The actual number of hate crimes is expected to be higher due to underreporting and stigmas associated with reporting crimes.

Throughout America’s history, the AAPI community has faced continued hate. While the novel coronavirus has rapidly increased hate crimes and violence towards the community, discrimination and xenophobia have always been present. Hate is the real virus and must end.