School lockers by Phil Roeder via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Republicans in the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a slate of bills on Tuesday that would reshape curricula in public schools while attempting, again, to wrench control over federal pandemic relief aid from Gov. Tony Evers.
The education-related bills passed on total or near party line votes and are almost certain to be vetoed by Evers. The bills would ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory in classrooms, require cursive to be taught to elementary school students, institute a civics requirement for Wisconsin schools and spend $100 million in COVID-19 relief funds on mental health programs for students.
The passage of AB 411 is the end of a months-long effort by Republicans to turn the racial justice movement of the past year into a culture war talking point. Critical race theory is a school of academic thought, mostly reserved for law schools and upper level graduate courses, that says racism is baked into American institutions. Wisconsin now joins states such as Texas in passing a bill that bans the teaching of critical race theory and other tangential topics after they became the focus of conservative media and politicians over the summer.
The bill also includes a provision that would allow parents to bring complaints against school districts for apparent violations, which could result in 10% of the district’s state funding being withheld.
Despite insisting that prohibiting “race or sex stereotyping” in schools is an innocent and worthwhile cause, the bill’s author, Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R- Muskego) said in testimony about the legislation that it would ban the teaching of topics such as “critical self-reflection,” “marginalized communities” and “racial prejudice.”
“When a teacher goes too far, the parents have a punitive recourse,” Wichgers said. “If the school district doesn’t fix it, the school district has given plenty of time to fix the wrong that’s taking place in the classrooms. And if they don’t, the law is clear, you cannot teach my child something that is against the values we teach at home. As a fact. When it is theoretical, philosophical, religious, you can’t do that.”
Wichgers insisted that the bill doesn’t ban certain terms or prevent the teaching of U.S. history, but Democrats warned that if a teacher is creating a lesson plan about slavery or the civil rights movement and they’re worried about losing state funding for their district, it will have a negative effect on the education of Wisconsin students.
“There were several educators, [who] came to testify that talked about the fact that they were not teaching anything remotely close to critical race theory,” Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee), a former teacher, said. “They talked about how if this was passed, they would feel uncomfortable, because you would be walking a tightrope and not knowing what you could say that could eventually get you in trouble and take money away from your district, which is problematic.”
Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), in a speech that got several laughs from the gallery, said Republicans were either lying or being hypocritical to their constituents with the passage of this bill. Using many of the words on Wichgers’ list of topics that would violate the law, Anderson said Republicans were violating the First Amendment.
“I’m sorry, I was reflecting critically about our country’s history of white supremacy. Sorry, that’s a banned word, not allowed to say that. What about maybe systemic oppression? Nope, also banned. What should I call it, maybe melanin-based meanness? I don’t quite know what to say,” he said. “Actually, never mind, forget that reflecting critically is also bad, I wouldn’t want to do something that might send the thought police after me.”
“Now all frustration aside, what Republicans are doing is using the government to squash dissent,” he continued. “You’re using the government to enforce laws that will punish people who say things that you don’t like, which is a real kick in the pants for the First Amendment. And it really seems like discussions about race or racism triggers you, which ironically, lends a lot of credence to the need to teach about how racism might be affecting our American institutions and systems, like maybe a theory about how race might be critical to understanding the American system.”
Shortly after the party line passage of a bill that Democrats and teachers say will make it harder to teach American history, Republicans took up a bill authored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) that would require Wisconsin students to take a civics class.
Vos and his fellow Republicans said understanding of how government works is fundamental but lacking for many students — a point on which Democrats concurred.
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Even though many Wisconsin schools already have civics courses and, since 2017, Wisconsin students have been required to pass a civics test in order to graduate high school, the Republican bill requires a class that teaches about topics such as the Bill of Rights and the three branches of government. Democrats said they were concerned the bill was rushed through without input from teachers and ignores the civics education students are already receiving in other social studies classes.
Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton), a former history teacher, said it’s wrong to pass such a bill without taking into account the best ways to give kids a good civics education.
The civics bill passed with one Democratic vote, Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee).
While Republicans voted to make sure students can’t discuss “patriarchy” they did pass a bill that would require all elementary schools to teach cursive. The bill’s author, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), said requiring cursive helps students’ creativity and confidence but Democrats wondered why it’s necessary to teach kids something they’ll never need to use.
Also passed on party line votes were bills that Republicans said would increase transparency in Wisconsin education. One would require school financial information to be made readily available to the public and another would require school curricula be regularly published and made available to parents. Democrats objected, saying the bills place administrative burdens on districts that are already spread thin.
Those bills also passed through the Senate on Tuesday, over Democrats’ objections that private voucher schools that receive taxpayer funding are not held to the same regulations they want to impose with the bill. “If you believe in transparency for some, you should believe in transparency for all,” said Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), accusing them of “stacking the deck against our public schools.”
Another bill — also passed with a party-line vote — orders Evers to spend $100 million of Wisconsin’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds on mental health programs at public, charter and private schools in the state. The Republicans have frequently been attempting to dictate how Evers allocates the federal money, which falls entirely in his purview.
The same bill also requires the administration to turn over to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee all reports it sends to the federal government on the state’s spending of federal pandemic relief funds, including ARPA and the previous Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Republicans said it should be common sense to support kids’ mental health.
“The bottom line is that these kids need help and they need it now,” Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi) said. “So if you offered me $100 million, one time money to help children. I don’t know why we’re arguing about that. Once again, my common sense kicks in and I don’t get it.”
But Democrats said Evers had asked to appropriate millions of dollars for school mental health funding in the budget passed earlier this summer, and Republicans took that provision out.
So now, Republicans were trying to send kids this money in a way that would also usurp Evers’ control over federal aid, said Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton): “It’s an odd day because you say you care about mental health funding, but on the budget that was just passed you didn’t.”
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