In the wake of increased anti-Asian violence during the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois on Friday became the first state to require Asian American history to be taught in public schools.
Under the measure Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Friday, every public elementary and high school in the state will be required to include a unit on the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including their history in Illinois and the Midwest. The requirement begins during the 2022-23 school year.
State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a Glenview Democrat and one of five Asian Americans in the Illinois legislature, said during a bill-signing ceremony at Niles West High School that she didn’t learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act and her grandparents’ struggles with discrimination and the fear of deportation until she was in law school.
“My family’s story, or at least what I knew of it until law school, was the fairy tale version of the quintessential American immigrant story, one that paints a picture of success, achievement and belonging,” said Gong-Gershowitz, who sponsored the legislation in the House. “It’s all true, except that it’s not the whole story.”
Teaching about that history, along with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the contributions people of Asian descent have made to American history and culture, will lead to greater understanding, both for fellow Asian Americans and for others, Gong-Gershowitz said.
This is particularly important in the face of anti-Asian sentiments and violence, she said, tying the recent rise in such incidents to the pandemic and its origins in China.
“Empathy comes from understanding, and we cannot do better unless we know better,” Gong-Gershowitz said.
The measure was approved on a 108-10 vote in the House, where some Republicans argued that curriculum decisions should be left up to local school districts. It passed without opposition in the Senate, where it was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ram Villivalam of Chicago, the first Indian and Asian American to serve in the chamber.
While the Illinois State Board of Education will provide guidance, it will be up to local school districts to determine the specifics of what is taught and how much instructional time should be devoted to the subject.
The law is the latest in a series of new requirements Pritzker has signed that aim to make the teaching of history in Illinois schools more inclusive.
Earlier this year, the governor signed a measure backed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus that expands requirements for teaching Black history in public schools, including instruction on the centuries before enslaved people were brought to America.
Pritzker signed a measure into law in 2019 that required schools this year to begin teaching about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as part of the history curriculum.
The governor, who helped found the Illinois Holocaust Museum and whose great-grandfather was a Ukrainian Jewish refugee, said Illinois has a long track record of making its history curriculum more inclusive, including in 1990 becoming the first state to require public school students to learn about the Holocaust.
“We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history,” Pritzker said. “It’s a new standard that helps us understand one another and ultimately move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals.”
Still awaiting action from Pritzker is a more controversial proposal that would require schools that choose to teach sex education to adhere to new state guidelines that align with national standards. The measure, also sponsored by Villivalam, would require “age-appropriate” teaching of topics including consent, gender identity and sexual orientation.
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