How this state became the first to require — and fund — teaching Asian American history

Jessica Hill

Connecticut has become the first state to pass a state-funded mandate to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history in public schools at all levels.

The requirement is part of a bill Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, signed into law May 24 after it passed near-unanimously in the Senate and with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House. It allocates more than $140,000 toward salary and other costs dedicated to helping local and regional school boards develop curricula focusing on Asian American history and contributions to the development of the United States.

Though the amount is a small portion of the state’s $24.2 billion budget for the next fiscal year, advocates say what’s significant is that it’s the first fiscal commitment by a state to implement AAPI education.

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, a Republican who serves as ranking member of the state Education Committee, said addressing issues such as racial prejudice requires working together across the political aisle and listening to advocates.

"It is really very important for our students to understand the major contributions that have taken place, because education is so vital to correcting false understanding and bias," McCarty said. "I’m interested in learning more, so I think others will also be."

The requirement will take effect in 2025.

School boards may develop their own localized curriculum, according to the legislation, but Connecticut’s chapter of Make Us Visible (MUV), an advocacy group for Asian American and Pacific Islander education in K-12 classrooms, has been working to create a model curriculum for the entire state.

From railroad work to Angel Island, any Asian American history that’s taught in U.S. schools usually focuses on the West Coast. But MUV CT is working to make the history of AAPIs in the Northeast, particularly local Sikh and Cambodian communities, better known, and is working with individual school districts to craft a curriculum that works for them.

“We’re really proud of the fact that the bill identifies the need to articulate Asian American Pacific Islander contributions to Connecticut,” said MUV CT director Jason Chang, who directs the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. “Those stories have not been told.”

Chang said this kind of education comes at a crucial time for a country that has recorded a spike in violence against Asian Americans in recent years. One goal of the movement, he said, is to facilitate greater knowledge of and engagement with affected communities to counteract the influence of stereotypes that perpetuate inaccurate representations of people.

“Violent acts come from violent words, and violent words come from violent thoughts,” Chang said. “And so we see education [that involves] appreciation for and building an understanding of diverse parts of our community, that those are going to be the lessons that a new generation grows up with.”

Last year, the state also passed legislation to fund the development of an optional curriculum including Asian American, Native American and LGBTQ+ Studies, among other topics, that public school districts can implement in their elementary and middle schools by 2023.

And in 2020, Connecticut moved to require its public high schools to offer an elective course on Black, Latino and Puerto Rican contributions.

The state funding component of this most recent mandate marks another step forward in the nationwide movement to better educate students on AAPI communities, according to advocates. Illinois and New Jersey were the first to require Asian American Studies, but don’t have state-funded mandates.

Quan Tran of MUV CT, who is also a lecturer in ethnicity, race, and migration and American Studies at Yale University, said attaching a fiscal note to the requirement is an act that literally “makes us visible.” She said the high level of bipartisan support for the requirement can also serve as a signal to other states.

“That is something that is quite unusual in a time where there’s a lot of political polarization,” Tran said. “It makes this an example to say that we can still do this work as a collective and that there are common grounds and that people are also looking to make change and impact in a way that is not polarizing.”

The requirement originally moved through the legislature as House Bill 5282, which collected 93 co-sponsors from both parties before it was folded into the top-priority Senate bill of this legislative cycle.

State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, House Democrat and chair of the education committee, said he felt it was vital to pass the mandate this year because of the violence the country has witnessed against Asian Americans since the pandemic began. Putting the House Bill into Senate Bill 1, he said, ensured it would pass before the legislative session ended.

“Seeing what’s happening to Asian Americans across this country is just horrible and shameful,” Sanchez said. “I would love to see that stop, but we have to educate our kids. That’s where it starts.”