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R.I. poised to become fourth state to require teaching Asian-American history

‘The Rhode Island legislature formally recognized that we must include Asian-Americans when we tell the great story of America,’ said Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican

Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, introduced a bill requiring that public school students in Rhode Island learn about Asian-American history.Steven Senne/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is on its way to becoming the fourth state in the US to require that public school children study Asian-American history.

The House on Tuesday voted 66-to-1 for a bill introduced by Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican. And the Senate has unanimously approved a companion bill introduced by Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat.

“I am so proud that today the Rhode Island legislature formally recognized that we must include Asian-Americans when we tell the great story of America,” Fenton-Fung said after Tuesday’s vote. “At times, some have felt as though they were guests in their own country. Today, we take the first steps toward improving that for generations to come.”

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Once the House and Senate pass the other chamber’s bill, the legislation will go to Governor Daniel J. McKee’s desk to be signed into law. Rhode Island would then join Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois with similar requirements.

Fenton-Fung said the action comes amid a sharp increase in anti-Asian bias around the country, including in Rhode Island. “This bill won’t fix this overnight, but it’s a great first step towards education and a greater place in their community,” she said.

Fenton-Fung said many Asian-Americans who she knows have been told to “go back to where they came from.”

“If you told that to my husband, it would be going back to Representative (Jose F.) Batista’s district in South Providence,” she said. “Sometimes we forget the American in Asian-American.”

She is married to former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, the state’s most prominent Asian-American politician and a Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Fenton-Fung said many students of Chinese, Cambodian, or Laotian descent have told her they’ve never been assigned to read anything by an Asian-American author. “They hadn’t learned their history in their school,” she said. “They were taught basically just from their parents.”

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The legislative actions comes as the number of Rhode Islanders identifying as Asian American grew by nearly 28 percent over the past decade, according to the latest census data. Asian Americans now account for 3.6 percent of the total Rhode Island population, up from 2.9 percent in 2010.

Under this legislation, Rhode Island students would learn about tragedies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and they would learn about the contributions of artists such as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and athletes such as Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, who has lived in Rhode Island.

The legislation would require every public elementary and secondary school to include in its curriculum a unit of instruction regarding the events of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander history, including the history of those groups in Rhode Island and the Northeast.

Those events must include the contributions made by Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people in government, the arts, humanities, and sciences, and their contributions to the nation’s economic, cultural, social, and political development.

“The studying of this material shall constitute an affirmation by students of their commitment to respect the dignity of all races and peoples and to forever eschew every form of discrimination in their lives and careers,” the bill states.

The requirements would take effect during the 2023-24 school year. The commissioner of elementary and secondary education will provide school districts with instructional materials that can be used to teach Asian-American history, but each school district will determine the minimum amount of instructional time that qualifies as a unit of instruction to satisfy the new requirements.

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Representative John G. Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat who often votes against Republican legislation, cast the lone vote against Fenton-Fung’s bill.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.