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Wisconsin could become next state to mandate Asian American history in schools

While similar bills have been introduced in the last 20 years, this legislation will be the first to move to a full-Senate vote. 
Empty classroom with desks, chairs and chalkboard.
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Wisconsin is one step closer to requiring Asian American history education in schools. 

The state Senate’s committee on education voted on Wednesday to pass a bill that would mandate the teaching of Asian American and Hmong American history in K-12 public schools. While similar bills have been introduced in the last 20 years, this legislation will be the first to move to a full-Senate vote. 

“It allows students who haven’t seen themselves in textbooks to feel safer and to be able to share their stories, and for there to be an understanding amongst students, teachers and administrators about the importance of Asian American stories in our history,” state Rep. Francesca Hong, who was among several lawmakers to introduce the bill in the Assembly, told NBC News. 

The bill, SB240, would amend a current statute, adding Hmong and Asian American education to a curriculum that currently includes the teaching of Native, Black and Latino American history. 

Wisconsin would join several other states that have passed similar mandates, including Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.

While Asian Americans in Wisconsin are a relatively small group, making up just over 3% of the population, they have experienced significant growth, increasing by 82% since 2000. Notably, the state is home to a sizable refugee population, particularly of Hmong descent. They make up the largest Asian American group in the state, at 29%. 

Still, Hong, who became the state’s first Asian American legislator in 2020, explained that it’s taken decades to get here. In 2005, lawmakers proposed a bill to mandate the teaching of the role that Hmong soldiers played in fighting for the U.S. during the Vietnam War and their resettlement. However, the bill never made it to the early public hearing stage, and similar legislation introduced in subsequent sessions was also unsuccessful. In 2019 and 2021, other bills resembling SB240 were introduced as well. But it wasn’t until recently that the importance of the Asian American community began to resonate, Hong said. 

“With me being the first and only Asian American legislator in the Legislature, I was able to leverage both the uptick of anti-Asian hate since the Covid pandemic, in addition to having my colleagues recognize how important, especially the Hmong and Lao community, have been to their districts and how powerful they are as a voting bloc,” Hong said. 

She added that there’s also been a great deal of momentum behind the cause from constituents. 

“After Covid, the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] Coalition was formed. And so a big factor in why this bill moved forward is because organizing works,” Hong explained. “Students and families and teachers have sent letters, have done calls, have sent emails. We did roundtables. They have been advocating for this bill towards their legislators.” 

The historical lack of Asian American issues in school curriculums has had negative impacts on the state’s student population, Kabby Hong, an English teacher at the Verona Area School District, said. 

“Wisconsin is home to the third largest Hmong population in the country. And I wrote the word ‘Hmong’ on the board. I asked my students to write down anything you know about the word Hmong. And my students wrote nothing or ‘I have no idea,’” Hong said. “So 99% of my students knew nothing about Hmong people, about their culture, about their identity, about the fact that many of their teachers or counselors or fellow classmates are Hmong.” 

He added: “I think when you look at the impact of the law, it’s really about belonging.” 

The state Senate is expected to vote on the bill by early March and, if approved, send it to Gov. Tony Evers to be signed into law. 

CORRECTION (Feb. 29, 2024, 12:30 p.m. EST): A previous version of this article misstated the states that have teaching mandates. Ohio and New York, which were included in the list, introduced bills mandating Asian American and Pacific Islander history education but haven’t passed statewide legislation.