Republicans on the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Education advanced a bill on Monday that would ban teaching certain topics about race and the harms of racism in schools, setting the bill up for a potential vote in the Senate when it returns in January.
The advancement of the bill aimed at prohibiting the teaching of so-called critical race theory in schools is part of a national effort that Republicans in Wisconsin and across the country have made into a campaign issue.
Critical race theory — a graduate-school-level framework that states American institutions are shaped by racism — was a key issue in an attempted recall of several members of the Mequon-Thiensville school board. The recall attempt drew the donations and attention of high profile Republicans across the state, including gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch.
Even though the recall attempt failed, Republicans in Wisconsin say they’ll continue to focus on education.
“Supposed blue state Virginia elects a Republican governor that ran on Education,” former Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt tweeted after Republican Glenn Youngkin, running on a platform that included opposition to critical race theory in schools, was elected earlier this month. “This is a winning issue for Republicans in 22. ‘Education’ [Gov. Tony Evers] should be hitting the panic button.”
Senate Bill 411 was approved and recommended for concurrence with the Assembly version in a series of 4-3 party-line votes by the education committee on Monday. The bill’s stated goal is to prevent students from being taught “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex and that an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex.”
Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego), one of the bill’s co-authors, said in testimony about the bill that it would ban the use of words and topics such as “critical self-reflection,” “marginalized communities” and “racial prejudice.”
The bill includes a provision that makes the state superintendent of schools withhold 10% of a district’s state funding where a teacher is found to have violated the law. It also includes a requirement that districts post their entire curriculum online.
Democrats have countered by saying critical race theory isn’t taught in schools but that limiting what can be taught will have a chilling effect on the teaching of U.S. history in classes — especially around topics such as slavery and the civil rights movement.
“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 when the bill passed the Assembly in September. “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.”
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) says he doesn’t think the focus on critical race theory in Wisconsin schools will help Republicans win elections and will ultimately reflect poorly on the legislators who voted for the bill.
“It’s part of a national effort that is just doing the latest iteration to keep the Lost Cause going,” Larson, who sits on the education committee and voted against the bill’s passage, says. “[It’s] trying to paper over some of the more racist history ingrained in our country. History is going to find it’s way out and ironically, those who try to cover up history are not viewed very fondly by those who study it in the future.”
The attempt to ban critical race theory isn’t the only culture war issue Wisconsin Republicans are focusing on in schools. On Sunday, a lawyer for the right wing law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, appeared on the WISN show “UpFront” to talk about a lawsuit filed against the Kettle Moraine School District over a student’s ability to be referred to by a preferred gender identity in school without parental permission.
The lawsuit stems from an unidentified 12-year-old who identified as transgender and requested that teachers change the pronouns they used to identify the student.
WILL is suing the district, saying parents should have control over that decision. Luke Berg, the WILL lawyer, said the district’s decision to allow students to express their true gender identity is unconstitutional.
“Schools have to defer to parents about major decisions involving their children,” Berg said. “They normally do, yet they have carved out this one exception for gender identity transitions, and in our view that’s unconstitutional. They need to defer to parents about this major decision. So the goal is ultimately for a court to say that parents have a constitutional right to make this decision, and that schools must defer to those decisions.”
Earlier this year, Wisconsin and Republican states across the country passed laws that prohibited transgender women and girls from participating in youth, high school and collegiate sports. The Wisconsin bills were vetoed by Evers.
Larson says he thinks education is a major issue in Wisconsin, but not for the same reasons Republicans are pushing when they try to legislate how racism is taught or who can play women’s basketball.
“I think if anybody’s voting on education the first thing they’re going to care about is that our schools are criminally underfunded and the money is being used to give huge tax breaks to businesses that don’t need them or just being sat on,” he says. “I think it’s going to backfire as much as they think they’ve got something.”
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