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Legislature passes bill to create African American and Wabanaki Studies advisory council

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Legislature passes bill to create African American and Wabanaki Studies advisory council

Feb 27, 2024 | 12:03 pm ET
By Emma Davis
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Legislature passes bill to create African American and Wabanaki Studies advisory council
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Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) presides over the Maine House of Representatives during the vote on LD 2001, which will establish an African American and Wabanaki Studies advisory council. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)

The Maine Legislature passed a bill to create an African American and Wabanaki Studies advisory council, which would be tasked with ensuring that the courses of study — already required under Maine law — are effectively implemented in schools. 

The proposal, from Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), passed the Senate with a 24-9 vote Tuesday morning, after the House passed the measure 77-54 last week. 

“Establishing the African American and Wabanaki Studies Advisory Council will help educators access the technical support and curriculum development necessary to fully integrate this history as a part of their lesson plans and provide excellent professional development opportunities,” Talbot Ross said following Senate passage. “Our students will better understand the resilience displayed in the face of historical injustices and our educators can foster a deeper understanding of the ongoing pursuit of equality.”

A 2022 report found that school districts had failed to consistently include Wabanaki Studies in their curricula, and several people cautioned in committee hearings that African American Studies, a requirement added more recently, could see the same issues without additional accountability. 

Two distinct advisory councils had initially been proposed in separate bills this year, with Talbot Ross proposing one for African American Studies, a requirement she helped make law in 2021, and Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono) proposing another for Wabanaki Studies, a requirement since 2001. 

Legislature looks to combine bills on advisory councils for Wabanaki and African American studies

“By no means are we trying to equate these two histories,” Talbot Ross told the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee when announcing the combined amendment last month. Rather, she clarified, the amended version is a means to move forward in a coordinated manner to get both distinct courses of study into school curriculums effectively.

Executive Director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission Jill Tompkins affirmed this view following the proposal’s passage, saying it “will finally ensure that the critical need for Maine’s children to be educated about Wabanaki peoples, histories, governments, and unique cultures will be fulfilled.”

After advancing out of the education committee in January with a favorable, but divided report, the amended version made it through both chambers, although not without objections. 

While still in committee, legislators opposed said they did not disagree with the importance of teaching these histories but raised concern about not providing added support to teach about other races and ethnicities. 

Committee members supportive of the proposal pushed back on this conflation, noting that the ancestors of most Black people in Maine were enslaved and brought to the U.S. against their will and that the U.S. colonized the land of the Wabanaki people, who have been in present-day Maine since before it became a state. 

Those opposed in committee continued their opposition on the House floor, including Rep. Sheila Lyman (R-Livermore Falls), who focused on the $3 million fiscal note to assist schools in implementing curricula. 

“This fiscal note of three plus million could go a significant way in increasing the pay for people working directly with our students,” Lyman said. 

However, education committee chair Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland) defended the bill.

“It’s done the right way,” Brennan said of the proposal. “In the state of Maine, we relish local control and what this bill does is provide the resources through the Department [of Education] to local communities to be able to make sure that teachers, staff and students have a robust experience looking at Wabanaki Studies and African American Studies.” 

The bill will now be placed on the Special Appropriations Table to be considered for funding.