New law requires N.J. schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander studies this fall

Third graders do their work behind see-though partitions at Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J., Thursday, April 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Third graders do their work behind see-though partitions at Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J., Thursday, April 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

New Jersey is now the second state after Illinois to require schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history. While advocates who pushed for the mandate are celebrating the legislative victories, they acknowledge several steps must be taken before school districts can implement a curriculum by September.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed the law requiring the curriculum starting next school year, as well as a second law establishing an Asian American Heritage Commission within the state Department of Education.

First, the department must appoint members to serve on the new 21-member commission, which will advise school districts on best practices for implementing Asian American and Pacific Islander studies.

The state education commissioner and the chair of the executive board of the New Jersey Presidents’ Council will serve on the commission, posts currently held by Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan and Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman.

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Murphy, Senate President Nick Scutari, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin will appoint 19 members from the public. At least three public members must have a Master’s degree in Asian American studies or a related field.

“We did kind of a crowdsourced recommendation of teachers and scholars who we think would be good on the commission,” said Dr. Kani Ilangovan, founder of Make Us Visible NJ, a coalition of more than 60 statewide and national organizations that advocates for Asian American communities and urged lawmakers to pass the new education requirement. “We have a really stellar lineup of people that we’re recommending.”

Ilangovan said the group plans to remain hands-on with the process through implementation. She said the second step is raising awareness about the new laws and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, observed in May. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in New Jersey, according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.

“We’ve created a resource guide for communities about what they could do for AAPI Heritage Month. And we’re hoping that by developing civic engagement through this campaign, [it] will be helpful in the implementation of the curriculum,” Ilangovan said. “We want people to feel comfortable going to their school boards and sharing their concerns about kids being represented in the curriculum.”

This isn’t the first time New Jersey schools have been tasked with making history and social studies curricula more inclusive.

In 2002, the Amistad Act required the state’s public schools to “infuse the history of Africans and African-Americans into the social studies curriculum in order to provide an accurate, complete and inclusive history.”

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A 2019 law requires middle and high schools to teach about the history and contributions of people who identify as LGBTQ.

Garden State Equality, a statewide nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community, was integral in lobbying for that curriculum. Executive Director Christian Fuscarino said the Asian American and Pacific Islander program’s initial success will come down to the work of advocates.

“Because this is an unfunded mandate, it’s going to be important for organizations to step up and identify educators that are willing to create curriculum and share it with other school districts to ensure that no student is left behind if their school district hasn’t prioritized this work,” said Fuscarino.

He noted most school districts have come into accordance with the 2019 LGBTQ history law, but he said a few dozen have resisted. The curriculum also became a flash point in the 2021 governor’s race.

“The best advice I can give parents and organizations is to act locally, get involved with your school district, learn if they’re teaching inclusive lessons or not, and figure out what hurdles that district is having in order to come in accordance with the laws,” Fuscarino said.

State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-11) sponsored the legislation creating the new requirement in the Senate. He said he thinks things will fall into place by September.

“For folks like me, born in my district and raised as an AAPI community member, not really seeing much AAPI history when I grew up, I think it’s going to be incredible for those future generations growing up here,” Gopal said.

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