Controversy over Asian American education embroils Capitol

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven June 23, 2022
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Southern California Gas Company

Controversy over Asian American education embroils Capitol

Move over, ethnic studies and “woke math” — there’s a new education controversy in California.

A bill that would encourage schools to teach students in grades 1 through 12 about Asian American and Pacific Islander contributions to the history of California and America has stalled in the state Legislature — despite bipartisan support and the backing of California’s most prominent Asian American officials, including Attorney General Rob Bonta, Treasurer Fiona Ma and Controller Betty Yee.

The reason? “Petty politics,” state Sen. Jim Nielsen, the Roseville Republican who authored the bill, told me in a Wednesday conversation in front of the state Capitol, where he gathered with advocates from the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association to decry the bill’s stagnation in the Assembly Education Committee. (Nielsen is a founder of the association, and his wife Marilyn is currently its national deputy executive director.)

Squabbling between lawmakers may seem like small-town Sacramento gossip, but it can have significant implications for residents across the state. Private negotiations, opaque processes and powers granted to certain legislative leaders can shape everything from the contents of California’s $300 billion budget to which bills are considered in public hearings and eventually signed into law — or shelved without a vote.

  • Nielsen told me: “That is so disgusting and so reprehensible that those individuals would be so petty and so partisan. … They didn’t think of it, it wasn’t their idea, so it can’t be anybody’s idea. And it’s even worse if it’s a Republican Anglo-American” sponsoring the bill.
  • By “they,” Nielsen was referring to the nine-member, all-Democratic Asian American & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, which officially announced its opposition to the bill on Wednesday: “The Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association chose not to inform or work with the (caucus) or the education community before introducing this bill and chose to introduce a performative bill that only ‘encourages’ teaching the contributions of California Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” The bill also “does not require any school in California to teach AAPI studies and does not provide any funding for curricula or educators to teach this critical history,” the caucus said.
  • But the caucus’ position had been clear for some time. As I previously reported, Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, the caucus’ leader, abstained from voting during an April hearing, saying, “I wish that the sponsors of the bill had come and approached our … caucus … so we could work on something more substantive.” Nielsen offered during the hearing to strengthen the bill to mandate Asian American inclusion in social studies curriculum, but Pan still withheld his support. And, according to emails I obtained, Nielsen had reached out to the caucus on March 22 to “humbly” ask for members’ support “as coauthors of this important and necessary bill.”
  • CC Yin, founder of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association: “The API Legislative Caucus told us they would only sign onto (the bill) if they were the lead author and Republicans were removed. APAPA is a nonpartisan community-based organization so that was just something we could not agree to.”

    The caucus says that Yin’s statement is unequivocally untrue and that the caucus’ stance on the bill was never contingent on Republican involvement.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Jim Nielsen

Jim Nielsen

Former State Senate, District 4 (Modesto)

Richard Pan

Richard Pan

Former State Senate, District 6 (Roseville)

The bill faces a July 1 deadline to advance out of the Assembly Education Committee; if it doesn’t, it’s essentially dead for the year. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

  • Patrick O’Donnell, the Long Beach Democrat who leads the committee, told me in a statement: The bill “has strong opposition from within the AAPI community that was thoroughly outlined in the California Asian American and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus statement issued (Wednesday). I defer to my colleagues, who have stated this bill is not comprehensive enough to properly recognize the contributions and achievements the AAPI community has made to help shape our collective history. I urge all stakeholders to work together to find common ground to move this important issue forward.”

Perhaps the most passionate speaker at Wednesday’s press conference in support of the bill was Evan Yuan, a 16-year-old student at Mira Loma High School in Carmichael.

  • Yuan: The bill is “being denied a democratic forum, the opportunity for it to be voted upon. This is the very antithesis of the founding principles our great nation was built upon. Do not let this bill die here in the darkness. Let this be clear — it is not an issue that only affects one group of people. A lack of education, an increase in hate crimes — these are issues that affect all of us. How can we expect to dream of a better world we can all live in, if not everyone is included in its making?”

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 9,264,968 confirmed cases (0.7% from previous day) and 91,314 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 77,234,258 vaccine doses, and 75.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.


1 Students reflect on COVID education

Lorena Hernandez (middle) helps translate an English assignment to a new student at Buttonwillow Union School on March 2, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters
Lorena Hernandez (middle) helps translate an English assignment for a new student at Buttonwillow Union School on March 2, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters

Welcome to Student Reflections: Looking Back on School During COVID.

That’s the four-part photo series CalMatters is launching today in partnership with CatchLight Local. The stunning project gave students in three California school districts an opportunity to visually document a year of their lives and, in their own words and through their own images, share their stories of what it was like to go to elementary school and high school amid the pandemic.

  • CalMatters Photo Editor Miguel Gutierrez, Jr.: “With COVID and schools, we often hear from parents, teachers and administrators, but rarely from the children themselves. This project gives us an opportunity to hear from the students about what they’ve experienced.”

As CalMatters Membership Manager Sonya Quick explains in her behind-the-scenes look at the project, students were given disposable cameras to document their own experiences. They photographed their friends, classrooms, the evolution of mask mandates, recess, after-school activities and senior prom. The disposable cameras, which forced the student photographers to go without filters and previews, offer a starkly different perspective on a digitized world in which almost everyone is accustomed to snapping and editing photos on their phone.

In other education news:

2 Bonanza of sports betting ballot measures

The Breeders' Cup Classic race at the Del Mar racetrack in Del Mar on Nov. 6, 2021. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
The Breeders’ Cup Classic race at the Del Mar racetrack in Del Mar on Nov. 6, 2021. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

Lawmakers may have avoided one costly fight at the ballot box in November — and are scrambling to head off another — but Californians will almost certainly vote on two different measures to legalize sports betting, which may or may not be in conflict with each other. Which raises the question: What happens if they both pass? CalMatters’ Grace Gedye takes a look.

In other ballot measure news: As a proposed amendment to enshrine the right to abortion and contraception in California’s constitution speeds through the Legislature, two legal scholars published a Wednesday post on a blog managed by Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center and the Hastings Law Journal warning the measure as written contains a “fatal flaw” that could result in courts reducing it to “a nullity.”

  • Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, told my colleague Alexei Koseff in a statement: “We … have reviewed the leaked Justice Alito opinion closely. We have thought about this, and engaged with numerous experts — we agree that (the amendment) is clear in what does: explicitly enshrines into the text of our Constitution the rights that Californians have to reproductive freedom, including the rights to have an abortion and use contraception.”

Also Wednesday, hundreds of anti-abortion protesters rallied outside the state Capitol to call for “an end to pro-abortion extremism in the state” and denounce a suite of bills aiming to expand access.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The state Legislature is wasting its time by dealing with a squabble between entertainment industry factions.

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See you tomorrow


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