Republican Assembly lawmakers at a press conference ahead of the floor session on Nov. 7, 2023. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)
The Wisconsin Assembly passed several bills on Tuesday that would affect Wisconsin’s higher education system by changing admissions requirements, implementing penalties for free speech violations and ending race-based programs and requirements.
While Republicans said the bills would help address ongoing problems throughout the state’s education system, Democrats criticized Republicans for unfairly targeting diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, continuing to deny funding to the University of Wisconsin System and neglecting to address more pressing needs of the institutions, their students and staff.
“We all know how important our universities are to our state, but this body is failing them,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said at the start of debate on a bill that would create a guaranteed admissions program. “This body is ignoring the pressing issues our universities are facing, while demonizing diversity, equity and inclusion and attempting to micromanage them.”
AB 370 passed 63-35 along party lines. Under the bill, Wisconsin’s public universities and technical colleges would be required to guarantee admission to applicants ranked in the top 10% of their high school class.
Coauthor Rep. Jerry O’Connor (R-Fond Du Lac) said the bill “honors the brightest and best scholastic students here in Wisconsin,” and that it would help keep more students in Wisconsin who could build their lives in the state.
“It doesn’t matter what school they come from. It doesn’t look at geographics. It doesn’t look at the income-base,” O’Connor said. “It creates opportunity for all students and we think that’s a good thing.”
An exception is included in the bill for UW-Madison, where the guaranteed admission program would only apply to applicants ranked in the top 5% of their class or with a composite score on the ACT in the 90th percentile or higher.
Under the bill, high schools — including public, charter and private schools — would be required to prepare annual class rankings of the top 5% and top 10% of their 11th and 12th grade students based on academic achievement, including students’ grade point average, ACT scores and course work. Schools would then be required to notify the top students of their ranking.
Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) said she had many concerns about the bill. Some charter schools use project-based learning or grade on a pass-fail system.
“How do we determine who is in the top five percent of a pass-fail system?” Emerson said.
Emerson also criticized the bill saying the Legislature is trying to micromanage the UW System.
“I really think that this bill is just happening because a few people don’t have unencumbered access to every decision that the Universities of Wisconsin are making over campuses,” Emerson said.
Rep. Alex Joers (D-Middleton) echoed the concern saying that there should be safeguards included in the bill so that students are not set up for failure. He added that lawmakers needed to be cautious about passing a guaranteed admissions that centers on ranking students.
“Overemphasizing a ranking system could pit Wisconsin high school students against each other. This cannot be the Hunger Games,” Joers said. “We have to get serious about building success for each and every student in our next generation.”
Freedom of expression bills
Lawmakers passed a pair of bills that Republican authors said were proposed in reaction to the findings of a controversial UW free speech survey.
The survey found that a majority of students who responded said they were afraid to express views on certain issues in class. An Assembly committee held a series of hearings that sought to explore ways the Legislature could help facilitate free expression on campus, following the survey.
One bill — AB 551 — passed unanimously. It would establish that student journalists in public middle and high schools and in Wisconsin’s universities and technical college have a right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media regardless of whether the school-sponsored media is supported financially by a public school, uses the facilities of the public school, or is produced in conjunction with a class in which the pupil is enrolled
“The bill’s genesis was a University of Wisconsin survey … which suggested that conservative thought was actively being stifled,” coauthor Rep. Tom Michalski (R-Elm Grove) said. He said the survey showed an “active effort” to constrain thought that is “counter to the original intent of the University System.”
The bill would specify that student journalists are responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature and advertising content of school-sponsored media and prohibit school officials from restricting what students could publish.
Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) pointed to Tripp Grebe, who spoke about his experience writing for the Badger Herald while a student at UW-Madison at one of the hearings on free speech. Grebe wrote a column that criticized calls to “defund the police” that his editors decided not to publish.
“[Grebe] went to the paper, talked to the editors, complained about it, and after a back and forth with the editors and the management of the paper, he was fired,” Murphy said. “This is the kind of thing that can go on on campuses, and we’re trying to protect students with diverse opinions on our college campuses.”
Emerson in response emphasized that the bill leaves final editorial decisions in the hands of students.
“Grebe’s situation would not have changed had this bill been in place because it was the student-run newspaper that decided not to post and publish the article,” Emerson said.
The other bill, AB 553, would establish certain free speech and academic standards and require institutions to pay up to $100,000 for violations of those standards. It passed 62-36 with Rep. Todd Novak (R – Dodgeville) joining Democrats against the bill.
Co-author Rep. Amanda Nedweski (R-Pleasant Prairie) said the UW System’s current policy on academic freedom and freedom of expression has “no teeth,” and that the bill addresses that concern.
Nedweski said that the UW policies were being “inequitably” applied throughout the system and that some campuses threaten “severe action for merely expressing a thought that might offend someone.”
“The UW free speech survey results tell us that more and more students choose to self-censor rather than participate in meaningful discussions and debate,” Nedweski said. “Having a policy that claims to support and protect free speech, free expression and academic freedom is meaningless if an institution also has an authoritative body that denies speech and suppresses viewpoints under the guise of bias policing and microaggressions.”
Under the bill, the attorney general, a district attorney or a person who alleges their rights were violated could bring court action against the UW System’s Board of Regents or the technical college district board. Institutions found to have violated any of the provisions in the bill would be required to pay out the damages, court costs and attorney fees.
Damages would start at $500 for the initial violation plus $50 for each day after the complaint is served that the violation remains ongoing. Total damages would be capped at $100,000.
Institutions could also be penalized with a two-year tuition freeze if there is more than one violation in a five-year period. They would also be required to put a disclaimer about the violation on all admission-related notices for the next four years.
Democrats criticized the financial penalties that the state’s public universities and technical colleges could face.
“Leveling financial punishment against [students’] institutions won’t solve the issue,” Rep. Alex Joers said. “Punishing our campuses does nothing to help our students learn.”
Republicans insisted, however, that the penalties are necessary for the bill to work.
“This bill provides a consequence and what we have learned is without consequence the System decides to do what they want to do and do not acknowledge oversight by the Legislature,” O’Connor said.
Emerson said a better way of supporting freedom of speech and expanding the diversity of viewpoints on campuses would be to invest in the University System. She said she is proud of the work that UW-Eau Claire does to bring different viewpoints to campus, but to continue to do that they need more resources.
“UW-Eau Claire is fortunate to have access to some very high dollar donors that bring speakers to our campus, then put out multiple viewpoints… We would like to see more of those coming,” Emerson said. “If we want more debate and more speakers, it takes funding to make it happen, and so we need to be doing that funding, not cutting funding because we don’t happen to like some topics that are talked about on campus.”
Eliminating race-based loans and grants
Assembly lawmakers passed a bill that would eliminate the consideration of race from loan and grant programs and other requirements within the state’s higher education policies.
AB 554 would modify several of Wisconsin’s higher education requirements and programs — including the minority teacher loan program, Lawton grants and requirements for the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University School of Dentistry — so that they no longer consider race. The programs would instead apply to “disadvantaged” students.
The bill comes in reaction to the 6-3 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions.
Rep. Nik Rettinger (R-Mukwonago), the author of the bill, cited the Court’s finding that the University of North Carolina and Harvard violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. All race-based discrimination is illegal, Rettinger said.
“All students should be given an equal opportunity to attend college and not be accepted to or denied because of the color of their skin,” Rettinger said. “Nor should access to college aid programs be guided by these backwards morally wrong practices.”
Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville), making his case for the bill, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “People should be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” He talked about Milwaukee Bucks Basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is Greek-Nigerian, recently signing a three-year contract for $186 million.
“[Antetokounmpo] and his family, being African-Americans, could receive benefits under affirmative action but not his teammates,” said Murphy, who is white. “That’s why it’s important to start looking at programs on the basis of need rather than skin color. We don’t want to advantage people just because of their skin color.”
He said that disadvantaged African-Americans could still benefit from the program even with the changes.
Democrats said that the bill was an overreach, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision only applied to admissions, and that the elimination of all programs that seek to help members of historically marginalized groups would cause harm.
Rep. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee) said the bill would “strengthen the historical legacy of discrimination towards African-Americans and other diverse groups.”
Drake, who is Black, said that she was a recipient of grants that focused on minorities and women — programs that the Republican bill would eliminate — and that she probably wouldn’t be in her position today if not for those programs.
Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (D-Milwaukee) said that the reason programs like affirmative action started being used is because “prior to that there were race neutral policies that people very much used in ways that are not race neutral.”
Cabrera said she benefited from minority undergraduate grants.
“Without these grants, it would have been impossible for me to attend college,” Cabrera said. “To be excluding race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, from the definition of disadvantaged, to me does not make any kind of sense because every one of those things puts you at a disadvantage.”
The Assembly also concurred in SB 555, which ratified raises for state employees, in a 98-0 vote. Despite the unanimous support, Democrats criticized the bill due to exclusion of UW employees from the raises. Republican lawmakers have withheld the raises from UW employees in an attempt to pressure the UW System into eliminating all DEI efforts on its campuses.
“I am disappointed, though, that at the same time we are not finalizing the pay raises and finally giving raises to the hardworking UW employees,” Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said of her vote for the bill. “You’re doing this because of politics and that is shameful.”
Republicans’ decision is part of the basis for a lawsuit brought by Gov. Tony Evers against the Wisconsin State Legislature.
Lawmakers also passed AB 545, which would require that technical college district board members are U.S. citizens, in a voice vote with many Democrats against.
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