Gov. Phil Scott signed into law last week a bill aimed at changing the way Vermont students learn about the historical and cultural contributions of racial, ethnic and social groups.

Known as the Ethnic and Social Equity Standards bill, H.3 calls for the creation of a 20-member working group to study Vermont’s education system and recommend ways to ensure it fully recognizes the “history, contributions, and perspectives of ethnic groups and social groups.”

“Our state does not have a unified statewide curriculum, so, for our education community, I want to be clear: This bill isn’t intended to change that,” Scott said at the signing ceremony last Friday. “Instead the goal is to encourage local communities to adopt more inclusive programs and to find ways to expand professional learning and support for districts.”

Essex Jct. representative Dylan Giambatista (D) was one of the bill’s four co-sponsors. He helped shepherd the bill through the House Education Committee before reporting it to the floor last month, where it unanimously passed 140-0. Scott’s signing of the bill last Friday marks the first bill to be passed during this year’s legislative session.

“To provide equity, we must see, hear, learn from, and grow with people who have been minimized or written out of our textbooks and classrooms,” Giambatista said on the House floor. “This bill is a first step to begin this critically important work.”

The bill calls for the working group to be comprised of two high school students, education experts, representatives from various racial, ethnic and indigenous groups, women, LGBTQIA people, individuals who experience disabilities and groups historically subjected to persecution or genocide. The bill will also require the Agency of Education to collect additional bullying, harassment and hazing data broken among the state’s schools, broken down by demographics.

The bill’s passage arrives 20 years after a Vermont advisory committee to the federal civil rights commission published a report detailing racial harassment in Vermont schools. The report concluded that despite such harassment was “pervasive” in the state’s public school system, its eradication didn’t appear as a priority to school or elected officials.

The commission released a follow-up report in 2003 that found the problem persisted despite some efforts to fix it. Among the issues uncovered in the report was that lesson plans and curriculum materials promoted racial stereotypes.

Fourteen years later, a separate report published by the Attorney General’s office and the Vt. Human Rights Commission Task Force found that racial disparities continue to exist in the state’s education system. The report suggested that Vermont’s educators should seek to teach an “integrated” curriculum that fairly represents both the contributions of historically marginalized groups while also accurately detailing their long history of oppression. The report also recommended an increased focus on recruitment, retention and promotion of people of color into positions of authority.

The bill also highlighted statistics noting Vermont saw 35 reported hate crimes in 2017, half of which were racially motivated, while also seeing an uptick

The bill garnered broad support from advocacy groups, who noted  how exposure to marginalized groups has been proven to reduce negative biases.

“Addressing the gaps in our standards can help our schools do better in telling stories that represent the beauty and brilliance of all communities, stories that are sorely lacking in most schools today,” wrote Sarika Tandon, an advisory board member for the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools, in testimony submitted to the House Education Committee.

“What we are asking for is simply that what we tell the students the truth, not a whitewashed history that paints white/straight/male people as heroes and saviors and everyone else as backwards victims,” wrote Tandon, who’s also an advisor for the Racial Justice Alliance at Montpelier High School,

The bill’s passage arrives on the heels of a movement among students at Vermont schools – including at Essex High School and Westford Elementary – to demonstrate inclusion and raise awareness to racial inequities by raising the Black Lives Matter Flag on campus.

The working group must now submit several reports to the legislature detailing its findings and any recommended statutory changes.