Legislators consider bill requiring ethnic studies in Minnesota high schools 

Students walk in a gymnasium with motion blur
The bill would require all Minnesota district and charter high schools to offer an ethnic studies course by the 2026-2027 school year that can be counted toward social studies graduation requirements.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2022

When Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis, was in ninth grade, she took a world studies class at her school in Minneapolis. At the end of the year, frustrated the class had only focused on Europe, she asked her teacher when they’d be studying the rest of the world. The teacher told her that study of other countries, continents or cultures would have to wait until Sencer-Mura got to college.

“That experience stayed with me,” said Sencer-Mura who identifies as a fourth-generation Japanese American. “All students deserve to see themselves — their own cultures, communities and histories — within their education.”

Sencer-Mura is currently sponsoring bill HF1502, meant to make ethnic studies available in all Minnesota high schools. 

If passed in its current form, it would require all Minnesota district and charter high schools to offer an ethnic studies course by the 2026-27 school year that can be counted toward social studies graduation requirements.

It would also establish a 25-member working group composed of teachers, parents, students, school leaders and community members to help the Department of Education develop a statewide model curriculum.

The bill defines ethnic studies as “the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States. Ethnic studies analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social, cultural and political forces, and the connection of race to other groups of stratification, including gender, class, sexuality, religion and legal status.”

An amendment to the bill removed the word “critical” from that definition and makes ethnic studies a requirement that high schools provide, but does not make the class a graduation requirement. 

“Students of all racial and ethnic identities benefit from ethnic studies … ethnic studies invites students to deeply explore the many diverse cultures and histories within our state and country and in doing so, gain a better understanding of themselves and their classmates,” Sencer-Mura said. 

A 17-year-old Spring Lake Park High School student, Ethan Vue, who is Hmong, spoke to journalists about why he wanted the bill to pass. 

“In my U.S. history class, I learned about other communities that shaped our country. I completed the reading, assignments, answered the critical analysis quizzes and presented informative research projects. But then I’m left thinking to myself, when will my history be taught? When will my classmates learn about my community too?” Vue said. “Perhaps learning about our history in school could prevent racist attacks against the Asian American community.” 

The testimony during Thursday’s hearing was passionate. Several brought up concerns the requirement would pit students against each other on the basis of race. 

Lisa Atkinson, a parent from Prior Lake-Savage endorsed by the Minnesota Parents Alliance and recently elected to her district’s school board, raised concerns in testimony that the bill would mandate classes focused on “political ideologies.”

She pointed to recent events in her district that she said disrupted an entire year of her son’s learning because they were “anti-racist, political agendas being driven by a local BLM activist.” 

Rep. Pam Altendorf, R-Red Wing, was among those who raised concerns about the bill. 

“We are such a divided country right now, and I can just feel the pain and the anguish of testifiers on both sides,” Altendorf said. “It’s not that we don’t want to educate our children and that needs to stop — that needs to stop being said — that we’re trying to suppress history. I don’t think that’s true. I think more education is better. And I think everyone agrees with that. What we’re against is the division and the division that this causes.”

Sencer-Mura said the ethnic studies requirement is meant to be inclusive, not divisive. 

“I heard some things today about what ethnic studies might do that are not true, and that is not my understanding,” Sencer-Mura said. “I’m bringing this bill because I believe division exists when we do not have the space to learn from each other, to confront and reckon with our histories and to imagine new ways of being together. And ethnic studies do just that,” 

The ethnic studies legislation was laid over for possible inclusion in an education omnibus bill.

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