Some advocates avoid education bill ‘circus,’ others come to fight

By: - February 11, 2022 7:00 am
Elephants at the circus

MUNICH, GERMANY – DECEMBER 25: The elephant show of James Puydebois during the premiere of ‘Tierisch gut’ at Circus Krone. (Photo by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

On Thursday morning, Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) held a press conference in front of the Capitol, livestreamed on WPEN’s Facebook page, to explain why the group’s members would not testify at the Assembly Education Committee hearing on a package of school-related bills.

Gov. Tony Evers had put forward a proposal “that would spend part of the state’s massive historic surplus to meet some of the most pressing and immediate needs of our kids,” DuBois Bourenane said, but the bills being taken up in committee didn’t address those needs. “Instead, we see this fast track slate of absurd and ill-conceived bills that are intended to do things like dismantle Milwaukee Public Schools, siphon resources from public schools to private schools by taking all caps off the state’s private school voucher program, and further widen existing opportunity gaps that stand in the way of our kids succeeding today.”

Heather DuBois Bourenane and Julie Underwood outside the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 10
Heather DuBois Bourenane and Julie Underwood outside the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 10 | screenshot via Facebook Live

“We refuse to buy a ticket to this circus,” added DuBois Bourenane, who was joined by Julie Underwood, a professor of educational policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Legislature’s Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. “These bills are a deliberate and dangerous distraction from the very real work of meeting the needs of Wisconsin kids,” DuBois Bourenane concluded, explaining that she was going inside to register against the bills and then going home.

Other members of the statewide group of public school advocates did not take part in the hearing, either, which they regarded as little more than political theater meant to stir up the Republican base over a group of bills almost certain to be vetoed by Evers.

State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly issued a statement saying the bills “will do nothing to help our public schools.” Republican legislators, Underly added,  “are proposing bills that are intended to divide us, to pit parents against teachers, and parents in rural communities against parents in suburban communities. They are using our kids in this sick game to win favor in an election year, plain and simple.”

At the hearing, which went on from 10 am to 4 pm, there was almost no testimony, until the last few minutes, from any of the bills’ opponents.

Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger) presented Assembly Bill 963, which he authored together with Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), “to address requests of many parents from in my district and outside that wanted to have their parental rights guaranteed.”

The bill enumerates 15 rights “reserved to parents without interference from the state and other government entities,” including decisions regarding children’s religion, education and medical care.

“As state legislators we should ensure that parents have a seat at the table when it comes to important decisions related to their children,” Gundrum declared.

Committee member Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) asked Gundrum, “Can you tell me, just generally speaking, which of these 15 rights parents don’t already have?”

“These were rights that were put in the bill from input from attorneys like Matt Sharp with the Alliance Defending Freedom and attorney Libby Sobic [of Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty],” Gundrum replied, name-checking lawyers for two conservative organizations that helped write the legislation.

(The Alliance Defending Freedom, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a legal advocacy and training group founded by 30 leaders of the Christian Right that “has supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia; and claims that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society.”)

“And also parents,” Gundrum added. “We had made quite a few versions of the initial draft, adding and taking things out. So I feel that this bill is solid with what I have in there.”

“Which of these 15 rights do parents not currently already have guaranteed to them as parents?” Pope persisted. “As a parent, you’re telling me that you don’t believe I have the right to … let’s just randomly pick No. 3: The right to determine medical care for my child?”

“Again, I just say that that was an issue that was added into the bill,” said Gundrum.

“You wrote the bill!” Pope shot back.

“Yes, I did,” Gundrum agreed.

 “So who added it?” Pope asked.

“Well, I did,” Gundrum allowed, “on the advice and input from other people.”

Pope returned to her theme: “How is this not a right that I, as a parent, already have?”

“I guess you got me there,” said Gundrum. “But I believe it should be in there.”

Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) in the Assembly Education Committee hearing
Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) in the Assembly Education Committee hearing | Screenshot WisconsinEye

“OK,” said Pope. “Let’s take No. 6 — the right to review instructional materials and outlines used by a child. Are you aware that that’s already guaranteed to me under federal law?”

“But it’s not being followed by local school boards,” said Gundrum.

“Well that’s enforcement,” said Pope. “That’s a whole different thing. We’re talking rights here. I already have this right as a parent.”

“But it needs to — it’s in there so it does get enforced,” said Gundrum.

After some more back and forth on the difference between making laws and enforcing them, Gundrum said he’d be happy to discuss the matter further with Pope in his office.

Pope asked if the bill is on a fast track for a floor vote.

Rep. Rick Gudrum (R-) at the Assembly Education Committee hearing
Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger) at the Assembly Education Committee hearing | Screenshot WisconsinEye

“I think it could be, yes,” said Gundrum.

Libby Sobic of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) testified in favor of the bill, pointing to what she described as a particularly important subsection of the bill concerning “the right to determine the names and pronouns used for children at school.” WILL is representing a family in Kettle Moraine whose child was allowed by her teachers to use different pronouns from the ones the parents prefered, without their permission, she explained.

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“We are also currently in litigation against the Madison Public School District for the exact same policy,” Sobic added. “We are aware of several other school districts around the state that have this policy. We believe that parents should be involved in medical decisions regarding their children. We believe that gender dysphoria is a medical condition that requires significant medical care from experts and professionals that are not at school districts. And that parents must be treated as equal partners in the education of their child and should have the ultimate decision over their child’s education.”

Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield) latched onto that topic: “I just would like you to really verify for me that the school went ahead and made the choice to let this student change their pronoun without the parents’ consent?”

“OK, so I don’t have a problem with my daughter’s name is Samantha and she wants to go as Sam. That to me is a nickname, right?” Duchow added. “That is not the same as my daughter’s name is Cindi and now she wants to be Harry. And that’s to me not the same at all.”

Moms for Freedom testify before the Assembly Education Committee on Feb 10, 2022
Moms for Freedom testify before the Assembly Education Committee on Feb 10, 2022 | Screenshot WisconsinEye

More conversation ensued on this topic, including impassioned testimony from a group wearing “Moms for Freedom” T-shirts who described school officials not only overstepping by using the wrong pronouns, but also children being bullied by teachers because their masks slipped off their noses, parents and children alike ridiculed in school and disrespected at school board meetings.

Representative Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) jumped in to add his own recollection of confronting disrespectful educators. He described a legislative hearing in which a teacher spoke, “calling the parents names and calling them bigoted, uninformed, uneducated. And in the middle of her testimony, she closed the entire eight hours by saying … ‘In my classroom, I teach my children the truth.’”

Rep. Chuck Widgers (R-Muskego) during the Assembly Education Committee hearing
Rep. Chuck Widgers (R-Muskego) during the Assembly Education Committee hearing | Screenshot WisconsinEye

“You’re sitting there as a parent at a school board meeting saying, whether it’s global warming, evolution, gay marriage, transgender issues,” Wichgers said, “if they’re teaching their children ‘the truth’ on things that are theoretical, philosophical, religious — so you’re saying that this legislation is giving you guys the tools you need?”

During the hearing, Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) tweeted: “If parents want to ‘have a say’ in their child’s education, they should home school or pay for private school tuition out of their family budget.” She then deleted the tweet, and later apologized for her inartful language, but not before the Republican Party of Wisconsin jumped on it, calling it “national news” and whipping up a Twitterstorm of outrage.

Other bills discussed during the hearing included Assembly Bill 964, which would give a property tax credit to residents of a district that used virtual instruction during the 2021-22 school year. Debate centered on whether it was fair for Democrats to characterize this as “punishing” districts that did not remain in-person throughout the pandemic. Assembly Bill 969 would require reporting to law enforcement certain crimes and other incidents that occur in or on public school buildings and grounds, prompting a discussion about whether school districts could reasonably meet the reporting requirement.

The last bill on the agenda, AB 969, authored by Duchow, would also require schools to bring back in-school police officers if they had 100 incidents of disorderly behavior within a semester leading to 25 arrests.

“In some of our school districts such as MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools], police are being called to the same school 10, 15, sometimes 20 times a day,” Duchow declared.

School districts in Milwaukee and Madison have recently eliminated school resource officers after a great deal of pressure from students of color and advocates, who say the officers contribute to an atmosphere of distrust and criminalization of Black and brown students. 

Just this week, the Milwaukee Public School district reported new data that shows it has been suspending Black students at similar rates to 10 years ago. Despite making up 50% of the MPS student body, Black students have received 81% of the suspensions this school year, according to data MPS presented to the Milwaukee school board Tuesday night.

Taking the opposite approach from the public school advocates who boycotted the hearing, a group of young members of the group Leaders Igniting Transformation came up from Milwaukee and waited all day to testify about why forcing school resource officers on districts that have eliminated them is a bad idea. 

Lamonte Moore, organizing director for LIT, an advocacy organization that promotes Black and brown youth leadership with chapters in high schools and colleges across the state, testified that members and allies “condemn this attempt to disregard the voice of communities across the state that made the decision to end police department contracts and remove armed police from school districts.”

Lamonte Moore of LIT testifies before the Assembly Education Committee | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye
Lamonte Moore of LIT testifies before the Assembly Education Committee | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

People on both sides of the aisle want what’s best for kids, Moore asserted. But the Assembly bill “undermines the authority of elected school board officials and their constituents while also lacking the nuanced understanding that is needed to effectively address the challenges our schools face.”

Calling for “an investment in people and not in police,” Moore said the Legislature should allocate money to counselors, mental health professionals and “fund things that actually support you.”

Amanda Avalos, co-executive director of LIT, cited data from the U.S. Department of Education that shows Wisconsin is more likely than any other state in the country to refer Native American and Black students to law enforcement — at a rate more than three times higher than the rate of referral for their white peers.

Amanda Avalos of LIT testifies before the Assembly Education Committee | Screenshot WisconsinEye
Amanda Avalos of LIT testifies before the Assembly Education Committee | Screenshot WisconsinEye

LIT co-executive director Cendi Trujillo Tena spoke about her personal experience with the police presence in the Milwaukee Public Schools. “From the moment we walked into the building, the message was sent to us that we were a threat in our own school,” Trujillo Tena said. “This was the environment where we were supposed to learn and grow — the environment where we’re supposed to feel safe enough to try our hardest, challenge ourselves and dream about our futures. Armed police officers do not contribute to building these types of safe learning environments for students.”

There were no questions from the assembled committee members for the young people from LIT. Via a remote feed, Rep Lakeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) spoke up, giving the group the courtesy of asking Moore how it was in Milwaukee now tht school resource officers are gone.

“Morale is up a little bit” for students who don’t have to interact with police, he said, “in terms of feeling more human within the space they are learning in.”

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), joined the group from LIT in opposing the bill, and testified last. She took particular issue with Duchow’s use of recent fights at Madison East High School, which is in Hong’s district, to justify the re-imposition of school resource officers.

“I’ve spoken to students, parents, teachers and support staff at East High School, and this is not the bill that they want,” she said.

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) at the Assembly Education Committee | Screenshot WisconsinEye
Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) at the Assembly Education Committee | Screenshot WisconsinEye

She offered statistics on a decline in fights and disruptions in the Madison school district since 2015. Committee members disputed whether that was actually because of the work of school resource officers, who were only recently removed, as well as due to virtual learning that left schools nearly empty during the pandemic. Hong waved away those arguments.

“Meeting disturbances with violence creates more harm,” Hong said. “We have to address underlying issues that cause behavioral outbursts in the first place. Increase investment in mental health, youth programming, counseling, and many other important services.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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