By: Terrence Falk
Yee Leng Xiong’s family fled Laos when the country fell to communist rule in the 1970s. An aunt and older brother died as they traversed their way through the jungle to a refugee camp in Thailand.
Xiong was born in the Wausau area and attended D.C. Everest High School where he became a student leader of an Asian American student group. In 2014, he was elected to the D.C. Everest school board at age 19. Today he holds three elected offices: school board member, supervisor for Marathon County, trustee for the village of Weston, and is executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau, all at the ripe old age of 28.
Xiong became especially interested in a resolution supporting Asian American and Pacific Islander students (AAPI) before the delegate assembly of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) at the annual education convention, Jan. 19.
Xiong was also on the policy and resolutions committee of WASB that discusses proposed resolutions and considers their wording to be submitted to the delegate assembly. He spoke at the assembly virtually through Zoom.
“[My family] braved their way through the jungles of Laos… Families were torn apart… When they first made it to the United States, they faced violence, hate, harassment, but with education and support from our school communities, we have made a lot of progress… But in 2020, Asian Americans saw a drastic increase violence … Many Asian Americans were blamed for being the cause of the pandemic.”
Ryan Burg, a delegate from Sheboygan, also on the policy and resolutions committee, underscored the need for supporting the AAPI resolution. “We [in Sheboygan] were among the first communities to receive the Hmong people. I remember being in the second and third grade being told, being whispered by my family, ‘They eat dogs; they’re the Hmong’… We did the slant-eye thing… that was fun. I had no idea about the secret war that the Hmong fought on our behalf. If I would have known that, I would not have done any of the negative calling the Hmong racial epithets. That is what this does. This gives people knowledge about what the Hmong and other AAPI communities have done in Wisconsin and before they came here.”
The resolution fits into a broader, nationwide movement to require that schools teach Asian American history. In Wisconsin, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Reps. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield), Francesca Hong (D-Madison), Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) and Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), are co-authors of two pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 379 and Assembly Bill 381, that would require school boards to offer curriculum on “Hmong Americans and Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans.”
Tensions among delegates
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards resolution states: “The WASB encourages Wisconsin public schools to develop an educational curriculum and professional training to teach the history, culture, and contributions of Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders to the economic, cultural, and social development of Wisconsin and the USA. The WASB also requests the state Legislature provide sufficient funding to develop an appropriate model curriculum and training package.”
But not every delegate supported the resolution. Kent Rice from Arrowhead said, “Today we will be encouraging it, and tomorrow it will become an unfunded mandate.”
Tom Harter of Hartland Lakeside continued that theme. “It represents an unfunded mandate on other school districts…” Then he added another objection to the resolution, which was submitted by the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). “We oppose any innuendo that we have one school district tell another school district — we already maxed out trying to reflect the learning needs of all our individual students… We strongly oppose this mandate from the Milwaukee school district which, by the way, did not come into the policy and resolution committee on a timely basis.” (MPS missed the actual deadline for submission, but the policy and resolution committee used its authority to consider the resolution on its own.)
Harter went after MPS directly: “My suggestion to the Milwaukee school district is take care of your students, try to get your…”
At that point, Harter was cut off with “Point of order!” Attacks on other individuals or school districts are not allowed.
Ryan Burg clarified the actions of the committee. “As it specifically states in the bylaws, the policy and resolutions committee does have the power to present resolutions directly to the delegate assembly. We have done this in the past.”
Aisha Carr from MPS shot back at Harter’s comments, which she called “absolutely disgusting,”: “It is infuriating to hear one leader in educational spaces encourage or tell other leaders in educational spaces to focus on our children.”
Committe chair Barbara Herzog endorsed the resolution, saying, “Wisconsin is home to the third largest Hmong American population of any state in the nation. Hmong comprise the largest Asian Americans and Pacific Islander group in Wisconsin.”
The resolution passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 188 to -81.
The Hmong/Native American connection
In January 2020, the WASB delegate assembly considered a resolution in support of Native American students. The most contentious issue was the removal of Native American signs, symbols and school mascots. Schools that used these portrayals opposed the resolution citing local control. The resolution failed by a large margin.
Last year, the WASB delegate assembly considered a watered-down resolution devoid of any mention of school mascots. Instead, the resolution centered on support of a 1989 state law, ACT 31, which requires the teaching of Native American history and culture in elementary and secondary schools. The Wisconsin Department of Education is required to develop curriculum and materials for this instruction, but no enforcement or funding was ever provided. The resolution only stated WASB’s support for ACT 31. This time, it passed by a wide margin.
The 2022 resolution supporting AAPI built on the Native American resolution of the previous year. While this resolution also passed by a wide margin, the question remains whether school districts will do anything to improve support for Native or AAPI students.
It might be seen as “just another checked box,” says Xiong. School board members might feel good, but they will not have to do anything. However, Xiong sees it as a first step. “This will not be the end of the story; just the beginning of a new chapter.”
Kristen Keyser from West Allis – West Milwaukee says that passing the resolution gives marching orders to WASB lobbyists. They can now advocate for AAPI education in the Legislature, pointing to this approved resolution. In addition, Keyser points to state law that specifically states that one Wisconsin education citizenship goal that should be taught at all grade levels is “an understanding of human relations, particularly with regard to American Indians, Black Americans and Hispanics.”
Nowhere does the law address AAPI issues.
Keyser is also a fourth grade teacher at the Indian Community School in Franklin and spoke to the delegates about how she incorporates Hmong history, culture, language and discrimination in lessons for her Native American students.
Her students see the parallels. “I talk with my students about removal from ancestral land to reservations which is not necessarily where people are from,” she tells the Examiner. “The Oneida people in Wisconsin are from New York… How do you think it would be to be in a new place?” She continues, “We talk about Afghani children.”
Xiong says he sees “a lot of similarities and parallels between Hmong and Native Americans.” He recalls a group of Hmong from his community going up north in support of Native American treaty fishing and hunting rights.
“This is about helping us become better global citizens,” said Pablo Muirhead of Shorewood at the delegate assembly. The concept of global citizenship was echoed by several speakers.
Andrew McKenny of Monona Grove opened the door to much more. “Not just this, but also African American, Latino/Hispanic, and all other cultures need to be put into some type of curriculum here in Wisconsin.
Until last year, WASB had no resolutions specifically addressing racial and cultural issues. The closest it came was addressing issues of poverty and inequality.
WASB does support bilingual education, but is silent on support for undocumented students, Black Lives Matter and concerns about critical race theory.
WASB does have resolutions supporting gender equity. That is not the same as who gets to use which bathrooms, locker rooms or play on which sports teams. WASB has not touched LGBTQ issues.
As WASB and school boards around the state struggle with these touch points, more contentious resolutions are likely to come before the WASB delegate assembly.