Pa. lawmakers want state to require Asian American and Pacific Islander education

State Sens. Maria Collett and Nikil Saval introduced a bill to include Asian American and Pacific Islander curricula in Pennsylvania schools.

A portrait of Pa. state Sen. Nikil Saval

File: Pennsylvania state Sen. Nikil Saval of Philadelphia. Saval, along with state Sen. Maria Collett, has proposed a bill that would require AAPI studies in Pennsylvania schools. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Two Pennsylvania lawmakers are championing a bill that would require the state’s children to learn Asian American and Pacific Islander history and culture in their classrooms.

The goal is to combat a rise in racist crimes against people of AAPI descent with a more inclusive education.

Democratic state Sens. Maria Collett and Nikil Saval recently introduced Senate Bill 839.

“We had been approached by Asian American organizations in our districts, who have experienced the effects of anti-Asian violence, anti-Asian American hatred, xenophobia, bigotry, which has been widely remarked on,” said Saval, the first person of South Asian descent elected to the Pennsylvania legislature.

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There is also a sense among lawmakers that the political wind is at their backs.

Several states ,including neighboring New Jersey, have passed laws requiring the instruction of robust AAPI studies courses.

“We want to make sure that everyone in our community sees, recognizes, and shares in the value of our AAPI community members,” Collett said.

More than 4% of Pennsylvania’s nearly 13 million residents are of AAPI descent. Asian American and Pacific Islanders have a deeply rooted history in the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding region.

“Establishing curriculum that centers the major contributions of marginalized peoples and people whose histories have in turn been marginalized, would be a major achievement,” Saval said.

In Montgomery County, nearly 9% of Collett’s constituents are of AAPI descent.

“This would be an initiative to have the [state] Department of Education create a curriculum that would include AAPI people, history, contributions to American society — it would provide AAPI related materials to the board, it also would commission a study by our state Board of Education to see how school districts in Pennsylvania are teaching the AAPI curriculum,” Collett said.

JACL Philly president: New AAPI bill is a ‘long time coming’

Rob Buscher, president of the Japanese American Citizens League of Philadelphia, welcomed the piece of legislation and called it a “long time coming.”

“I think, for a lot of Asian American communities that realized a lot of the hate comes from fear of the unknown and given the lack of context within our K through 12 curriculum, it’s no surprise that so many Pennsylvanians have such misconceptions about who Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are,” Buscher said.

Buscher served on former Governor Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on Asian American Affairs in 2016. He said commission members had conversations with the state Department of Education, but the political landscape then made a shift “impossible.”

State Rep. Patty Kim has introduced companion legislation in the Pennsylvania state House, which the Democrats narrowly control.

The Senate bill is currently in the education committee. Collett said she doesn’t care which iteration of the bill makes its way to the desk of Gov. Josh Shapiro.

“This is something that strengthens Pennsylvania,” Collett said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it and I’m going to keep pushing from my end of it to make sure that it gets through our education committee and onto the floor for a vote, so we can get it to Governor Shapiro’s desk. I look forward to celebrating with him when he signs it.”

Buscher is hopeful that the current slate of legislators in Harrisburg are amenable to these proposed changes.

However, he said the curriculum needs to come from the “first-person lived experiences” of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

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“If it isn’t actually being led by the community first, then I don’t think it’s going to be effective in the purpose that the senators have for this,” he said.

Buscher, who teaches within the Asian American studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, said he hopes the proposed legislation allows for integration into existing ethnic studies curriculum, and supports expanding those curriculum together.

Anti-Asian hate, flurry of legislation from other states motivated Pa. legislators

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent Anti-Asian political rhetoric led to a rise in Asian-American hate incidents.

In Philadelphia, four Asian American teens were the victims of a racist attack on SEPTA’s Broad Street Line.

To combat the racism, lawmakers took to action and began introducing AAPI-related bills in different corners of the country, including some conservative states.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has waged a culture war in his bid for presidency, signed a bill to require AAPI history courses be taught in schools.

Critics of DeSantis questioned his motives, especially as he led the charge to ban an Advanced Placement African American studies course, endorsed the controversial PragerU Kids in Florida classrooms, and signed a bill prohibiting some Chinese citizens from buying property.

“I’m very concerned about what’s happening right now in Florida with regards to the state’s curriculum related to how the history of slavery is being taught — the sort of euphemization of these sorts of difficult topics that we have to face head on if we want to actually address the real issues that matter,” Buscher said.

He believes that “until the foundational sins of African slavery and Indigenous genocide have been addressed, that we as a nation cannot heal from the wounds of institutional racism.”

As book bans creep into the Central Bucks schools and angry parents push against equitable education, Saval said he’s “deeply disturbed and horrified,” adding that the “willful distortion” and exclusion of the history of marginalized communities has immense costs.

“I think education in Asian American studies, in the studies of Black history, Indigenous history, and Latino history, I think all of those things would do much for people to be able to see each other fully,” Saval said.

Collett said efforts to “whitewash” history can have damaging effects.

“When we do those things, we are just fomenting fear. And fear can often turn into really erratic behavior. People often commit violent acts based on fear — fear of what I don’t know and what I don’t understand,” Collett said.

Saval: ‘To be able to see themselves and for their peers, in turn, to be able to see them’

Buscher grew up in rural-suburban Connecticut in a fairly conservative area. He said the history of wartime Japanese internment camps in America was reduced to a lone paragraph in his textbook, sandwiched between much larger portions of texts about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The amount of gaslighting at an institutional level that with regards to the actual suffering of the Japanese American community specifically and in that wartime experience has been so undercover that it’s really driven most of my work as an academic, and as an artist, and a curator,” Buscher said.

He said Pennsylvania lawmakers have a chance at getting ahead of this issue by embracing a more inclusive curriculum.

Saval said he is raising Asian American children, and he wants them to have an education he couldn’t.

“I will be thrilled to have my children learn as I did not, frankly, about Black history, to learn about Asian American history, to learn about the history of Indigenous people to a degree that I did not,” Saval said. “It’d be great for certainly my children and children across the state, to be able to see themselves and for their peers, in turn, to be able to see them.”

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