The Potluck

Minnesota House committee passes ethnic studies requirement

By: - February 28, 2023 7:50 pm

Photo courtesy of Minnesota House Public Information Services.

Minnesota House lawmakers advanced bills on Tuesday adding ethnic studies and personal finance courses to K-12 graduation requirements. Both need to pass several more hurdles before becoming law, however. 

The personal finance bill (HF651) received unanimous support, but the ethnic studies bill (HF1502) divided DFL and Republican lawmakers. Republicans said they want schools to celebrate diversity, but questioned why the state needs to mandate teaching ethnic studies in schools, calling it a burden on schools. DFL lawmakers said the bill’s mandate also comes with funding and resources for teachers to help with that burden. 

The Minnesota Department of Education is in the process of adding ethnic studies to Minnesota’s social studies standards — which has stirred controversy in recent years — though students do not need to meet those standards to graduate. State standards include financial literacy in economics and social studies requirements, but the standards do not require stand-alone courses. 

Chief author of the ethnic studies bill, Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis, said the graduation requirement adds an extra layer of accountability. Sencer-Mura said she has spoken with MDE officials, and the agency is against adding the graduation requirement. 

Studies show ethnic studies increase academic engagement among students of color and low-income students. Nine states have already passed legislation mandating ethnic studies in K-12 schools, according to the National Education Association. 

“When I didn’t see myself reflected, and when I didn’t see my experience reflected, I started to lose a lot of faith and trust in the school system,” Sencer-Mura said. “Students are saying, if there’s nothing I’m learning in this building that’s connected to my outside life, then what does this place have to teach me?” 

Sencer-Mura brought students, teachers and professors of color to testify in support of the bill. 

“I haven’t felt represented in a long time,” said Jocelyn Thepmontry, a sixth grade student at Worthington Middle School with UNIDOS Minnesota, a community organization led by Latino immigrants. “I want to know that my people are important to society.” 

Brian Lozenski, chair of the educational studies department at Macalester College, said an ethnic studies requirement would help students prepare “to engage with the surrounding world, and to not operate in a bubble.” 

One person testified against the ethnic studies bill: Jeff Peterson, a volunteer with Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, an organization which advocates against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Peterson argued that ethnic studies would “alienate youth” and promote “heightening awareness of group differences.” 

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, asked Peterson what his academic credentials are — he has none — and compared them to Lozenski, the Macalester professor.

Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, asked why the bill includes science as a potential subject to focus an ethnic studies course on. Lozenski explained that ethnic studies approaches STEM as “not just a technical approach, but a cultural practice,” and gave the example of the field of ethnomathematics, which looks at how different cultural groups approach math. 

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng is a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. They're in their final year at Northwestern University, where they study journalism, legal studies and Asian American Studies. The Seattle native has previously been a statehouse intern with USA TODAY Network Ohio and an editorial fellow with Washingtonian Magazine.