Momentum for requiring instruction of Asian American and Pacific Islander history in K-12 curriculum nationwide continues to grow—including in states like Florida where legislation restricts how topics of race can be taught in schools.
At least 12 states now are home to a local chapter of Make Us Visible, a coalition of community members looking to pass legislation that requires instruction of AAPI history as a preventative measure to the recent rise in anti-Asian violence across the country.
Five such bills endorsed by Make Us Visible state chapters have passed in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island within the last year. Illinois also separately passed legislation requiring Asian American history be taught in public schools.
In Florida, where state education officials recently banned a new Advanced Placement African American Studies course, two bipartisan bills supported by the local Make Us Visible chapter have been introduced this year. They would require instruction on “the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including the immigration, citizenship, civil rights, identity, and culture of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to American society.”
The bills mark the second attempt at passing such legislation in the state, said Mimi Chan, the state director for Make Us Visible Florida. Chan is cognizant of the current political climate in her state—Florida is one of 18 states that restricts how teachers can talk about race—but she’s taking things one step at a time, hoping that members of her community can better see themselves reflected in classroom instruction.
“This is not a political agenda,” Chan said. “This is very much a community-based initiative. Seeing how much the Florida community wants this is, I think, what’s going to hopefully see this through to the end.”
Why there’s a push for Asian American history
Make Us Visible was started in January 2021 by two parents and a teacher in response to the rise in anti-Asian violence. They saw education as a long-term preventative measure, according to its website.
Since then, grassroots efforts to require the inclusion of AAPI history in K-12 instruction have sprung up, or are in development in 15 states with local community members running or trying to start state chapters. Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia are among the states with either an active chapter or a chapter incoming where there is also a law in place restricting how topics of race can be taught.
Chan, of the Florida chapter, grew up not learning about Asian American history or Asian Americans’ civic contributions in Florida schools. Through her family’s deep ties with the local Asian American community in Central Florida, she realized this needed to change, especially given the experiences her neighbors were sharing.
“In the onset of the pandemic, I had a lot of my community coming and reaching out to me, regarding some of the discrimination they were facing,” Chan said. “And even situations where kids were being bullied in school, and senior citizens had fear for going grocery shopping, and other instances that were just very disturbing.”
Even in states where legislation has passed, putting together a matching curriculum is complex.
In Connecticut, where legislation passed last year, educators are grappling with a slew of questions in developing curriculum for all grades, including how to be inclusive of the diversity of experiences and identities of local Asian American and Pacific Islander residents, and how to cover history through a critical lens which involved interrogating systems of power and understanding how different groups have been racialized.
Meanwhile, in Texas, educators are developing a pilot program for a high school elective course in Asian American studies so that the course could be approved by the state board of education. But this comes after efforts to fast track the course’s approval last year came undone.
The course was initially meant to be approved as part of the state’s broader revision to social studies standards. Conservative critics of attempts to culturally diversify the standards pushed the revision process down the line eliminating the option for fast approval of the Asian American Studies course, along with a proposed Native American/Indigenous Studies course.
Texas is also one of the 18 states with a law restricting how topics of race can be taught in schools. Yet educators working on the proposed Asian American Studies course there are still pushing for an elective that would go beyond the goal of simply increasing the visibility and representation of Asian Americans in history classes.
Mohit Mehta, the assistant director for the Center for Asian American Studies and Ph.D. candidate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, is among those who see the value in more ethnic studies courses in Texas.
Ethnic studies courses help all students “understand the long deep history of how different groups have been treated in the United States, and have fought for their equal rights and protection,” Mehta said.
Mehta says it’s important to recognize that such a course in any state owes a debt of gratitude to the path paved by scholars of African American Studies. It’s partly why those working on the new course are in regular communication with those that got African American Studies and Mexican American Studies courses approved as electives in Texas years ago.
“You can’t talk about Asian American studies or Asian American history without being aware of how law and policy affected, first and foremost, Black Americans,” Mehta said.
Asked whether there were any concerns about Florida state officials’ attacks on African American studies bleeding over into the call for Asian American and Pacific Islander history requirements, Chan with Make Us Visible Florida said she’s focusing first on paving the way for legislation to pass.
“We’re trying to get this bill passed,” Chan said. “You just take the small wins to be able to move forward.”