A fast-moving bill introduced by legislative Republicans would allow parents to opt their children out of any school program or course that relates to “sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression,” according to the bill’s language.
The proposed legislation was scheduled for a public hearing less than two days after it was circulated for co-sponsorship — a move Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates targeted as an attempt to dampen public comment during Thursday’s meeting. The bill, which appears poised for a veto by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, is scheduled for a committee vote Wednesday.
“The governor does not support this bill,” Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said.
The proposed bill would require schools to notify a student’s parents before providing any program or course discussion related to sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression and allow the parent or legal guardian the ability to have their child opt out of the program. Current law allows parents to opt their children out of sexual education courses.
LGBTQ Legislative Caucus chair Rep. Lee Snodgrass, D-Appleton, issued a statement in opposition to the bill, noting that “in many cases, school is the only place students receive accurate, non-sensationalized information about gender identity, gender expression and sexual identity which is a part of comprehensive human development curriculum.”
“This bill, rushed through the process in less than 48 hours, will further marginalize students who may already face additional challenges and sets a dangerous precedent to pull students in and out of classrooms if parents do not like the topic of the day,” Snodgrass said. “Assembly Republicans are targeting LGBTQ youth in our state with this unnecessary and divisive bill instead of fighting to get Wisconsinites the real help they need during a pandemic.”
Bill co-author Rep. Donna Rozar, R-Marshfield, said there is no intent in the legislation to erase or alienate LGBTQ youth in the state, but rather was drafted to allow parents or guardians the ability to “opt their child out of curriculum content that does not align with their family values.”
“Students are exposed to things, maybe at a very young age, as an attempt to undermine a family value belief system that is detrimental to what parents and guardians are trying to teach their children,” Rozar said.
During debate on the bill Thursday before the Assembly Committee on Education, Rozar drew audible groans from the audience when she responded to a question from Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mount Horeb, who asked if the legislation would apply to history courses that include figures like Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, who was assassinated in 1978.
“I’m not familiar, is that a real person?” Rozar asked.
A legislative attorney said the bill provides an exemption that allows members of the LGBTQ community — such as U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, who are both gay — to speak at schools or have their sexual orientation referenced in curriculum if it provides “necessary context in relation to the topic of instruction.” However, additional discussion on the topic of sexual orientation would require advance notice to parents by the school board or district.
“All I see in this bill is a mechanism for those that disagree, they can opt out,” Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, said.
Dana Pellebon, co-executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, likened the bill to another introduced by legislative Republicans in June, which would bar public schools, universities and technical colleges from teaching students and training employees about concepts such as systemic racism and implicit bias.
“When you are talking about marginalized populations like Black people, Latinx people, LGBTQ people, when you opt out of our stories you are opting out of my humanity and I need you to not opt out of my humanity,” Pellebon said.
The state Department of Public Instruction registered in opposition to the legislation, along with another bill discussed Thursday that would require schools to provide civics courses to students in grades K-12. Both bills were introduced and brought to committee discussion this week.
State Superintendent Jill Underly said in a statement legislative leaders are “ramming through bills that stand to cause real harm to students and that have barely seen the light of day.”
“Make no mistake, they know exactly what they are doing: using our children as pawns in a culture war,” Underly added. “They will not win in the long-term, but they will hurt our students, our educators, and our democratic principles in the process.”
The bill has also been opposed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Wisconsin School Social Workers Association. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference and Wisconsin Family Action support the legislation.